About this Recording
8.223674 - TRUSCOTT: Symphony in E Major / Suite in G Major / Elegy
English 

Harold Truscott (1914–1992)
Symphony in E Major • Suite in G Major • Elegy

 

On first inspection the bare facts of Harold Truscott’s life seem unremarkable enough. He was born into a working-class family in Seven Kings, Ilford, Essex, on 23rd August, 1914. Largely self-taught musically, he did attend the Guildhall School of Music (1934) and the Royal College of Music (1943–5) in London as an adult on a part-time basis, mainly for instrumental tuition (piano, with Orlando Morgan and Angus Morrison, and horn, with Frank Probin). For much of his life he earned his living by teaching music, eventually retiring as Principal Lecturer in Music from Huddersfield Polytechnic College (now University) in 1979. He also became known as one of the most perceptive and knowledgeable writers on music in the immediate post-war period (indeed, he established a reputation for knowing almost all music). He was active as a pianist in recitals for BBC radio in the 1950s (during which a few of his own compositions and all of his completions of the unfinished Schubert piano sonatas were broadcast). With the change in BBC musical policy in the mid-1950s (initiated as part of a much needed overhaul by Sir William Glock) Truscott the composer quickly disappeared from sight, except in and around the campus in Huddersfield. After 1955, when his Trio in A minor (1950) was broadcast on the Third Programme, the only scheduled transmission of his music during the rest of his life occurred in a 1969 recital—of the Seventh and Tenth Piano Sonatas (1956 and 1962 respectively)—by John Ogdon. Truscott’s name remained familiar to the public at large through his writings on music for a wide range of periodicals and broadcast talks for the BBC (these latter continuing up until 1978). He published books on Beethoven’s Late String Quartets (Dobson, 1968) and Franz Schmidt’s Orchestral Music (Toccata Press, 1984).

Truscott composed throughout his life (starting at the age of 12), very often in the teeth of complete indifference if not downright hostility. He was a natural composer for the orchestra and all his life remained fascinated by its sound and by the challenge of writing for it (as his many unfinished projects affirm). Circumstances led him to cultivate instead chamber and instrumental forms, particularly the Sonata, which stood more chance of performance or which he could himself play. As a result, his official catalogue boasted just three completed orchestral compositions, but nearly thirty solo sonatas, eighteen of which are for the piano, four for violin, three for clarinet and others for oboe, horn, cello (all with piano) and unaccompanied violin, plus nine songs and chamber ensemble pieces. Only after ten of his piano sonatas were issued on LPs during the 1980s was a little attention focused on him as a composer, and only in celebration of his 75th birthday in 1989 was any attempt at a retrospective mounted. None of his music was published during his lifetime, one tiny miniature for cello aside—and that in the last year of his life. He died on 7th October, 1992.

In the wake of his death, however, so much new material has come to light as to shatter all previous conceptions of both the size and nature of his output and the circumstances of his life. The total of complete works or performable fragments has now risen from fifty-one to in excess of one hundred distinct items, including four additional piano sonatas (one, in two movements, for the left hand), two string quartets, a pre-war attempt at an opera based on Shakespeare’s Falstaff, five further symphonies in varying stages of completion of which two are lost, concertos and other orchestral works (including the Elegy recorded here), two dozen songs, a Mass (plus movements of two others) and various other chamber works for non-standard combinations. Several of these works are missing, attested only by their presence on worklists or in the surviving fragment of an autobiography, Laughter in the dark. This last source has cast a revealing light on much of Truscott’s early life. He was born with a “club foot”, which deformity was remedied by corrective surgery at the age of 3 months, although Truscott had to wear a hip-brace until he was twelve and was duly passed medically unfit for military service in 1939. Since sport and games were a closed door to him, Truscott took an avid interest in books from a very early age, but on discovering music in the mid-1920s determined to become a musician. Composition became the natural outlet for his intense response and Stevenson’s Under the wide and starry sky. Unfortunately, growing paternal incomprehension of this all-consuming passion provoked severe tension within the household, coming to a head in the late spring of 1930, shortly before the fifteen-year-old Harold was due to take his school matriculation. After an abortive interview with a psychiatrist, Truscott’s father had him temporarily committed to an asylum in Romford.

It seems from Laughter in the dark that Ernest Truscott took these drastic steps in the sincere belief that his bright and difficult son’s endeavours to compose original music (which he insisted his son was copying from other, long-dead composers’ works) were a sign of mental illness, of which incarceration would cure him. Perhaps more astonishing is the fact that he was able to find a doctor to endorse this view. As it turned out, the treatment was self-defeating, since the nurses on duty in his ward kept their quiet charge happily supplied with music manuscript paper! After twenty weeks in hospital and a convalescent home in Kent failed to have the desired curative effect, Truscott’s father admitted defeat and offered to pay for his son’s further tuition. Not surprisingly, the budding composer refused, preferring to earn a living and pay his own way. However, his eventual attendance at the London colleges was facilitated only by bequests from deceased relatives. His studies at the Royal College brought him into contact with the composer Herbert Howells (1892–1983) from whom Truscott received instruction in composition as part of the instrumental course.

The Elegy for string orchestra was located by the present writer in March 1993, forty-nine years after its composition (in October 1943), buried amongst Truscott’s enormous collection of printed music. He seems never to have publicly acknowledged the work’s existence and it does not even appear on any of his worklists, unlike many earlier pieces which he catalogued as “now discounted”. (There is, however, a reference in a worklist compiled in about 1969 to a Fantasy for string orchestra from 1944, not to be confused with the later—1960—work originally titled A window on infinity. The 1944 Fantasy is not attested to by any other known source; it might well be another lost work, or the composer may simply have mis-remembered the Elegy’s title and date.) A big, symphonic Adagio in E-flat, the Elegy is a work fully conversant with and worthy of the English tradition of string orchestral works, such as Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis, Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro and the Concertos of Tippett and Howells. What is also clear is that the Elegy is no student or apprentice study; even though Truscott’s personal voice (as manifested in the post-war piano sonatas) has still not emerged, this is yet a work of complete mastery and maturity. Had a professional public performance occurred at any time during the 1940s or 1950s it would have almost certainly secured Truscott’s career as a composer and his subsequent life would have been markedly different.

Mystery enshrouds the circumstances of the Elegy’s creation. The manuscript gives no hint for whom it was written, beyond a cryptic note—possibly added later—that the “partial quotation from George Butterworth’s ‘Shropshire Lad’ Rhapsody at bars 53–56 is intentional”. (Butterworth’s biographer, Michael Barlow, has traced this quotation back through the Rhapsody to its use in the original settings of A.E. Housman’s poems. It occurs in the first song, Loveliest of trees, at the second line: “Is hung with bloom along the bough”.) Whatever the relevance of the link with Butterworth, the character of the Elegy belies any funerary or memorial connotations despite the obvious intensity of feeling. Sadness and regret rather than grief suffuse the music, which at times is gentle and radiant in expression; here is no “parting beyond the end of the world” but one less mortal. The work’s key-scheme may provide a clue to the nature of Elegy’s inspiration. Indeed, the structural use of tonality, whereby the key-schemes of large, multi-movement works embody simple modulations or cadences, was a principle with which Truscott was familiar, even at this early stage, through his study of the music of Schubert and Mahler, as an undated but early essay on these two composers reveals. The Elegy’s key-signature is that of E-flat major and the work opens over a deep pedal on the tonic but before the key can be firmly established it is contradicted by a persistent, alien D-flat. This rogue note undermines the tonality in two ways: first, as the flattened seventh (or leading-) note which drags the music towards E-flat minor; second, as the differential between the major scales of E-flat and A-flat. In combination with the consistent use of G natural (not G-flat as would be required by the key of E-flat minor), the D-flat implies that the “real“ key, and the goal of the whole piece, is indeed A-flat major, of which E-flat is merely the dominant. (The combination of major third (G) and flattened seventh (D flat) is also suggestive of the Mixolydian mode.) But it is to E-flat that the music stubbornly clings, creating an impasse that is never resolved. Excursions into the unrelated tonal areas of E major and a transitional C major / A minor fail to resolve the problem of the flattened seventh. In the closing pages, the crucial intervals of the second and third, which in both their major and minor forms permeate through every corner of the Elegy’s fabric, are heard rooted on D-flat so emphatically that the final E-flat major triad is marooned, quite literally, in the wrong key.

Truscott must have realised the quality of the Elegy’s music. Since earlier and lesser pieces were still being acknowledged into the 1960s, its suppression for half a century would seem to have been deliberate. Perhaps the inspiration was just too personal; certainly there is no other extant work by the composer that is so demonstratively emotional. One possible explanation which can be inferred from Truscott’s autobiographical writings (in which there is no mention of the piece itself) concerns his long-standing relationship with a former pupil, Barbara Campbell (to whom he was engaged), which apparently came to a mutually agreed end (over religious practice) at some time in 1944. In October of the previous year the writing may have been clearly on the wall, prompting this valedictory and superbly crafted outpouring of love-music.

If the Elegy was inspired by his former fiancée it was not the first work associated with her. In 1938, early on in the relationship, Truscott made the first of several visits to her home in the Lake District and was so moved by the landscape around Grasmere that he composed a “Grasmere” symphony. This work, now lost, was in fact the second symphony that Truscott had composed, the first having been at least begun in 1936 (it also is lost) and dedicated to the Austrian composer Franz Schmidt, then still living. The symphony as a form was of paramount importance to Truscott throughout his life; after these early efforts he planned at least four others in A minor (one being inscribed to Howells in 1943), one each in E minor and E major plus several more in diverse keys, most of them sketches of intent barely extending for a dozen bars. From all of these projects only one emerged complete: the Symphony in E major here recorded for the first time.

The precise dating of the Symphony is contentious, since it varied in the composer’s writings at different periods, though this is true of several of his works, which may simply not have been to hand for reference at the time. Most worklists show 1948–9 as the date of composition (although one gives 1955), making it exactly coeval with the subtle and eccentric Piano Sonata No. 4 and the Second Violin Sonata. Both the full orchestral score and an extant piano original are dated August 1949—January 1950. This piano version did not start life as a symphony; it may have been conceived either as a suite or sonatina but the original title was erased with “Symphony II” being written underneath, first in pencil then subsequently overwritten in ink. As with the dates of composition, so the number and key of the whole varies between different documents. “Symphony No. 1 in E minor” is embossed on the spine of the orchestral score but there is no title-page, nor any heading to the first movement which is quite clearly in E major (although it does close on a chord of E minor) and the piano score and subsequent worklists show E major. The second and third movements are respectively in B minor and F-sharp minor, the latter closing quite intentionally in C-sharp minor, the relative minor key of the tonic E major. Although a worklist (from c. 1966) refers to this work as “Symphony No. 2 in E major”, the composer’s final catalogue gives no number at all (the convention followed here).

The Symphony is probably unique in that its three constituent movements received their first performances in three separate countries over a period of thirty-two years. The finale was performed first, by the Huddersfield College orchestra in 1961; not a note of the work was heard again until November 1993, when movements two and three were played under Gary Brain in Walzbrych (Waldenburg) in Poland. It only received its première at the sessions for this recording. The symphony was originally scored for a Late Classical orchestra of double woodwind, two horns, trumpet, timpani and strings. In 1990, Truscott decided, after many years of consideration, to add a part for trombone in the final movement. When this addition, written out in pencil on a spare stave at the top of the manuscript orchestral score, was actually made during his final years is not certain. It is unlikely to have been during 1992, for he was too ill to undertake any work that year, but none the less does constitute the last music that he ever wrote.

The turbulent first movement opens with luminous woodwind writing in E major reminiscent of Carl Nielsen but the music rapidly becomes more agitated, with ferociously difficult writing, particularly for the strings. This first span is marked “Alla marcia” in the piano score and while march-like elements are present they are subject to constant disruption and fragmentation. The correct tempo for this complex movement gave the composer considerable difficulties; at different stages metronome markings of quaver = 55, 69 and 84 were adopted. 69 was his final choice and is the one followed in the present recording. The Scherzo which follows is built on as large a scale as the opening Allegro. It is a subtle movement, fleet and spectral by turns with several unexpected twists, one of which is to dovetail into the intense slow finale. Whereas the central movement contains echoes of the Mahlerian ländler-style scherzo as well as a Shostakovichian drive, the Adagio is possessed rather of a Brucknerian naivety, both movements containing structural and instrumental features probably derived from the music of Sibelius. The finale takes the form of a processional, its moods ranging from pain through weariness to exaltation, but in the last few pages the atmosphere darkens to something rather grimmer and grander. The relentless even tread seems to become more tragic and doom-laden (the addition of the trombone is particularly telling here), reflected in the music’s final descent into C-sharp minor (rather than the more obvious E major). As with the Elegy, there may have been a hidden programme behind the music which determined or at least influenced the fast-faster-slow structure. No mention of any external programme is made in the full score, but in the version for piano over the head of the Finale are two related and revealing superscriptions:

“There was a shout about my ears, and palms before my feet”
(G. K. Chesterton, The Donkey);

“And they took Jesus, and led him forth, and bearing his own cross he went forth to that place which is called Calvary, but in Hebrew, GOLGOTHA” (St John’s Gospel, chapter 19 verses 16–17).

It may be that the entire symphony was inspired by the story of the Passion (one dear to the composer’s heart as a converted Catholic). The first movement could then be a complex inspired by the events leading up to Christ’s arrest in Gethsemane, the mocking scherzo by the scourging following His trial, leading directly to the finale’s agonised march to Calvary, with the grim closing vista of Golgotha itself.

As far as is known, the Suite in G major has no external programme. It was composed in 1966 following a request (not a commission—Truscott was never paid, nor did he expect to be) for a short work for a local youth orchestra in Huddersfield. A performance was arranged and the composer attended what he presumed was the rehearsal. However, after one complete play-through the conductor moved on to the next piece and it seems that no public performance was ever envisaged. The Suite is in four movements and is the only extant complete work by Truscott for a full orchestra (double woodwind, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, side drum and as sharp as ever and give a tantalising hint of what he might have achieved on a broader canvas had his luck been a little different. One striking feature of this work in particular, but true to varying extents of all Truscott’s music, is the occurrence of brief reminiscences of other composer’s styles. These are not derivations, being always filtered through Truscott’s own personal voice and they are representative of the enormous range of his musical sympathies rather than influences on his style. The preludial march-like first movement in G is a case in point, starting quietly with a repeated-note figure (which recurs in the finale) the developments of which echo in places Nielsen, Sibelius, Tippett and Havergal Brian amongst others (later movements invoke Busoni, Hindemith and Schmidt). The first movement subsides almost before it has got going and is succeeded by a C-sharp minor Fughetta. As with the first movement, this less-than-straightforward Andante masks its art by seeming artless and rises to a brief climax at its centre with clashing chords of C-sharp and E-flat. The third movement is the heart of the Suite and by far its longest movement (taking nearly half the total playing time). In a deceptively simple ternary structure the music gravely unfolds in three spans of symphonic breadth, with frequent modulations away from and back to the main key of F-sharp major. The brisk Finale moves freely between an assertive D minor and the brighter major before both the tonality and material of the opening march return at double speed, concluding the Suite in a glowing and unambiguous G major.

The author would like to express his thanks here to various people who have assisted with information and insights in the preparation of these notes: the composer’s widow, Margaret; the conductor, Gary Brain; Martin Anderson, Michael Barlow and Malcolm MacDonald.

Guy Rickards


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