About this Recording
8.223727 - TRUSCOTT: Chamber Music
English 

Harold Truscott (1914–1992)
Chamber Music

 

With the death on 7th October 1992 of Harold Truscott, one of the keenest intellects in British music, as well as one of its finest and most neglected of composers for the piano, was lost. He had been born into a working-class family in Seven Kings, Ilford, Essex, on 23rd August 1914, with the deformity known as a “club foot”. Since he could not indulge in sports, despite the success of corrective surgery, he became a rather bookish child. In music he was mainly self-taught, largely through the examination of scores in the collections of local libraries. Frequently he would copy the music out for himself to learn how it worked from the inside.

Later he did study part-time at the Royal College of Music (1943–5) but for instrumental courses (piano and horn). For much of his life Truscott earned his living by teaching music, eventually retiring as Principal Lecturer in Music from Huddersfield Polytechnic College (now University) in 1979. Truscott first came to wider prominence in the late 1940s as a broadcaster on the BBC’s Third Programme (initially as a pianist, but more usually giving talks, the last being in 1978) and as a regular reviewer for the ground-breaking periodical Music Survey. Ultimately, he contributed to practically every British musical journal of importance as well as Penguin’s highly regarded symposium The Symphony. He was the author of books on Beethoven’s Late String Quartets (Dobson, 1968) and Franz Schmidt’s orchestral music (Toccata Press, 1984) and left unfinished at his death further volumes on the latter’s chamber music, studies of the music of Korngold and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and the substantively complete Schubert and the piano.

Truscott’s knowledge, a tribute to the public lending-library system of the 1920s and 1930s, was always of a practical nature, obtained in order to be put to good use. He possessed the facility to recall the music he knew through his hands, his intimate understanding of it lending his pronouncements a particular—and rare—authority. At times his learning proved unexpectedly inconvenient: on more than one occasion piano sight-reading examiners threw up their hands in despair because Truscott knew every score placed before him. The range of his enthusiasms, very often for figures who at the time were totally unknown or forgotten, was legendary: Fritz Brun, Busoni, Clementi, Dussek, Holbrooke, Medtner, Reger, Schmidt and Tovey are just a few of them. His passionate advocacy for Schubert’s piano music led him to complete several of the unfinished early sonatas for his own benefit (some were broadcast in the 1950s). Devotees of the music of Havergal Brian (recordings of whose complete orchestral works are currently in progress on this label) have much to thank him for since it was Truscott who brought Brian to the attention of the composer Robert Simpson, then a young BBC music producer. Without that introduction, Brian’s music might still be languishing unheard.

Truscott’s most enduring legacy is the music that he composed throughout his life, starting at the age of twelve. In general, the language he evolved was cosmopolitan, vigorously contrapuntal and unashamedly but adventurously tonal. The structural use of key in his largest works derived ultimately from the music of Schubert and Mahler but in effect is not unlike the “progressive tonality” that is a feature of the latter’s music as well as that of Nielsen and Simpson. Although the challenge of orchestral composition fascinated him all his life, opportunities for performance were sparing enough for him to complete only a handful of the pieces he so optimistically began. Three of these, the Elegy for strings of 1943, the Symphony in E (1948–50) and Suite in G Major (1966) can be heard on Marco Polo 8.223674. The vast bulk of his output was concentrated therefore on chamber and instrumental forces, the most important being the great sequence of twenty-two piano sonatas that is quite simply unmatched in quality (although not in sheer quantity) in the music of Great Britain and which does not suffer by comparison with those of any composer since Beethoven. The sonata as a form came to mean the most to him and those for piano spanned practically his entire career. Truscott also completed twelve other sonata works—three for violin with piano (1946–59) and at least two without (1946), three for clarinet (1959, 1965, 1966), others for viola (1946; only the solo part survives), oboe (1965), horn or cor anglais (1975–81) and cello (1982–7)—in addition to songs, a piano quintet (c. 1930), two string quartets (1944, 1945) and much else besides.

The reasons for the neglect of Truscott’s music are complex. In spite of isolated broadcasts by the BBC during the 1950s (including one by the composer himself) and in 1969 (by John Ogdon of the Seventh and Tenth Piano Sonatas), his traditionally based sonata-form structures were too out-of-step with the prevailing post-war trends blowing in from Darmstadt to achieve lasting success in the fashion-conscious 1960s and 1970s. The appearance of eight piano sonatas on three Altarus LPs in the mid-1980s did put him back on the map, if only at its periphery, but public performances were not to follow. The composer himself was secretive to an obsessive degree about his work and, while he might show individual pieces to particular people (the Third Piano Sonata, for example), he seems never to have made any concerted effort to promote his own music. He did not even enrol as a composer-member of the Performing Rights Society. Not until after his death could any fully informed overview of his output be obtained, with the effect that the total number of known works, collated by the present writer, has now more than doubled. The root causes for Truscott’s mistrust of others’ reactions to his music may lie in a traumatic confrontation with his father that had occurred when the composer was a fifteen-year-old schoolboy. Ernest Truscott had refused to accept that his son was composing his own music, believing him to be copying pieces by long-dead masters, partly on the assumption that no-one was writing classical music in 1930. The end result was an enforced “curative” spell in an asylum ward that was as unsuccessful as it was misconceived—but which incidentally deprived Truscott of any educational qualifications, something he remedied only in 1956 as a prerequisite of an enforced teacher-training course.

Truscott detailed many of these events in an unfinished autobiography, entitled Laughter in the Dark; (it is not known if there was any link in the composer’s mind between this and Nabokov’s identically titled novel) in which he also recounts that he started writing chamber music in about 1928. Two string quartets and a D minor piano quartet followed during the next two years, but like almost (but not quite) all of his pre-war output these early works have not survived. (It is possible that in recalling these pieces in 1977, nearly five decades later, he misremembered details, so that an untitled four-movement Piano Quintet in C minor which still exists may be what was half-remembered as the D minor quartet. The manuscript appears to be of the right period as does the adolescent handwriting, but the title-page is missing, as is the signature, so its provenance must remain as yet unclear). However, two further string quartets from Truscott’s time at the Royal College were located amongst his papers, the single-movement second of which (1945) was dedicated to Robert Simpson.

In 1946 Truscott set himself a demanding compositional challenge. He had observed how many contemporary works for unaccompanied violin or cello contained so much double-, triple- and quadruple-stopping that at times they appeared to be conceived as string quartets played by a single instrument. Accordingly, Truscott experimented by writing an unaccompanied piece where the harmony, tonality and thematic development would all be conveyed by a sustained and almost unbroken single line of notes. The fruit of this endeavour was the one-movement Sonata in C major for solo violin. The only chords as such that he allowed himself were a minor ninth, consisting of a G—on the open string below an A-flat, which appears close to the end of the piece, plus two culminating stopped octaves of B and C. The Sonata is more than a ten-minute study in sonata-form; the gravity of expression and the avoidance of conventional virtuosic writing make this piece a rather weightier proposition than is to be expected from a simple study, not unlike, perhaps, the large-scale minor-key piano studies of Alkan. A private recording of the piece was made in 1951 by Leonard Friedman, but the first public performance did not take place until October 1989, when Pauline Lowbury played it in London at a 75th birthday recital for the composer. After Truscott’s death, the present writer discovered that this work was but the first item in a larger complex of five pieces, loosely gathered in a folder marked “Sonata(s) for solo violin”. The piece recorded here is clearly marked “I”, but its pages are numbered separately (i.e. 1–7) from the remaining four movements; “11” starts again on page 1 with nos. “III”, “IV” and “V” numbered in sequence with it. A single work in five movements seems not to have been Truscott’s intention, but it is possible that a set of several sonatas was his original goal. In the event, at least two and possible three independent works in one or more movements seem to have evolved, but the composer’s uncertainty over the collective structure may explain his decision to release only the first.

The four unplayed pieces joined the two quartets from 1944–5 in the growing pile of works held back from view. In later years, Truscott denied having written any string quartets so that for long the Trio in A major for flute, violin and viola was believed to be the only large-scale chamber work—the instrumental sonatas aside—that he had written. In the event, it was neither the first nor the last to be composed, although his various attempts at a piano trio came to nought and only one movement was to be finished of the intriguing Trio for two oboes and cor anglais (1968). The A major Trio was composed between May and July 1950, possibly as a relaxation after the completion in January of that year of the intense E major symphony. The initial inspiration came from the playing of the Dutch flautist. Johanns Feitkamp, allied to Truscott’s admiration for Reger’s two trios for the same combination of instruments. Several of Truscott’s works exhibit a disarming and deadpan humour: in a work such as the Fourth Piano Sonata of 1948–9. the Classical tradition is subjected to an almost monumental sequence of teasing indignities, while the Seventh (1956) utterly transforms an innocuous, rather burlesque tune by way of a riotous ordeal-by-counterpoint until it assumes an heroic character out of all proportions to its humble origin. The Trio is one of those apparently artless compositions that is achieved only by the application of considerable artfulness (and craft). It breathes a late-Classical air, is full enough of conceits and quirks to have sated even Haydn, but the music never descends to mere pastiche: Truscott is always purposeful, even when wearing a wide grin. The sonata-form first movement, Allegro con spirito, opens in C major, but only after much activity, with the music playing hide-and-seek with the listener’s expectations, is the real key of A major unfurled. The composer himself described the second movement, Andante con moto, quasi allegretto, as “an ambling sort of intermezzo, neither minuet nor scherzo, but with some dramatic moments”. This characteristically matter-of-fact description gives no hint at all of the complexities hidden within this short and entertaining interlude. The heart of the Trio is its third movement, an Elegy which began life as the slow movement for an earlier and unfinished Duo for violin and viola (1948; the completed first movement is extant). The finale is a typical Truscott creation, a tricksy Minuet and Trio which plays tag with conventional notions of what this type of movement is supposed to be. The minuet itself is varied on its reprise and is followed by a quiet, curtailed coda, the sudden ending sneaking up on the music as if to catch it unawares. The Trio is one of the handful of Truscott’s pieces that was broadcast by the BBC (on 25th April 1955, played by Geoffrey Gilbert, Jean Pougnet and Frederick Riddle); it then lay ignored for thirty-four years until its first public performance, in the same recital as that of the Sonata for solo violin, by Ileana Ruhemann, Pauline Lowbury and Norbert Blume.

The Sonata No.1 in C major for clarinet and piano was written in the summer of 1959, during a hiatus in the composition of the Eighth Piano Sonata, which was not completed until the following year. The composer provided a typically disarming description of the work: “There is not a great deal to say about it. There are four movements: an opening sonata movement, Moderato, ma con moto; a very rapid scherzo, Allegro, with no trio (it is again a sonata movement); a slow movement, Adagio ma con poco moto, which has two main tunes, both initially stated by the clarinet, the second leading to a clarinet cadenza and the first tune played by the piano alone. While working on the Adagio I happened one day to look through an old music manuscript notebook, most of the contents of which went back to the thirties. My eye chanced to see an idea which I had at the time noted for possible symphony. I do not think it would ever have worked that way, but it suggested a flow that seemed right and so set off the Allegro finale of this sonata”. The First Clarinet Sonata (two more were to follow, in 1965 and 1966) is without doubt one of Truscott’s finest pieces, on a par with the best of his piano sonatas, such as Nos. 6, 8 and 9 which date from this period. There is a power and resource in the writing that few other sonatas for the instruments have achieved, yet the soloist is never overpowered by that time thickly scored and full-bodied piano part. The music fits the clarinet like a glove—this is one sonata that would not transpose effectively to the viola. The Sonata was first performed in 1960 at a lunchtime recital in Huddersfield by Rodney Bass with the composer accompanying.

The Sonata in A minor for cello and piano was originally sketched in 1982 at about the same time as the final two piano sonatas. For various reasons, the lack of any prospect of performance not least, serious composition did not begin until the latter part of 1986. The composer described its genesis thus: “I simply had ideas that suggested cello sound, with piano, and since I usually think along sonata lines, a sonata for cello and piano it became”. In parallel with the careers of Havergal Brian and Elizabeth Maconchy, Truscott’s latter pieces moved away from his earlier, expensive style to a more compressed mode of thought. While the Cello Sonata was composed in this concentrated late style, the lyrical nature of the cello drew out more extended melodic writing than in other works of his last years. The first movement begins with an Allegro introduction to the main Allegro danzando; the introduction is in fact rather faster than what follows although the different character of the music obscures this fact to some extent. This is interrupted by a much slower passage (Molto allargando subito). The movement is built around these three basic tempi, the second and third alternating throughout, the first reappearing only towards the close where a short quotation from Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony (1938–43) rises so naturally out of the musical fabric that it would almost pass unnoticed were the phrase not so familiar at least to British ears. There follows a short Allegretto scherzando in 214 and an Adagio third movement. This latter gave the composer so much trouble that he abandoned the piece until May 1987, a fact which caused the original first performance to be postponed until the 75th birthday recital in October 1989. Once Truscott was able to resolve the musical crisis (not evident at all from the finished movement) the rest followed smoothly and rapidly and the finale, with its recollection of the introductory Allegro towards its end, was completed soon afterwards. The Cello Sonata was first performed by its dedicatees, Miriam Lowbury and Eileen Pearce.

The brief Meditation on themes from Emmanuel Moor’s Suite for four cellos is a straightforward miniature for unaccompanied cello, simple without being simplistic. It was composed in just two days in April 1985 for Caroline Hobbs and was Truscott’s first completed work for solo cello. The present performance is the first of any kind, the work never having been played in public. By a strange irony, the Meditation was one of only two original compositions by Truscott to be commercially published in his lifetime.

(This recording was made possible thanks to the generosity and belief of many sponsors, including the Britten-Pears Foundations, the composers Robert Simpson and the late Andrzej Panufnik, Geoffrey Berry, Caveplace Ltd the Havergal Brian Society, Martin Anderson and the late David Hewson. 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, Martin Anderson and not least the composer himself requires cat in pace.)

Guy Rickards


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