About this Recording
8.557291 - PITFIELD: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 / Xylophone Sonata
English  German 

Thomas Pitfield (1903-1999)
Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 • Studies on an English Dance-Tune, etc.
Xylophone Sonata

Thomas Pitfield was born in Bolton in 1903 and died in Bowdon, Cheshire, in 1999. His father was a joiner and builder, and his mother a dressmaker. Although from infancy he had first artistic and then musical leanings, these were denigrated by his conformist family, and at the age of fourteen he was pitchforked protestingly into a seven-year apprenticeship in engineering. His savings during this period did, however, afford him a year’s study of piano, cello and harmony at the Royal Manchester College of Music. After attempting a freelance career as a musician, commercial pressures dictated a change of direction and he won a scholarship to study art and cabinet-making at the Bolton School of Art. During his years as an arts and crafts teacher in the Midlands he became increasingly known as a composer, owing to the help and encouragement of Hubert Foss of the Oxford University Press, who published many of his compositions and commissioned for the press cover-designs (including that for Britten’s Simple Symphony), cards, folk-song translations and book illustrations. In 1947 Pitfield was invited to teach composition at his old College, and remained on its staff (through the transition to the Royal Northern College of Music) until his seventieth birthday in 1973. In a long and happy retirement he continued to pursue both his musical and artistic interests until well into his nineties.

As a composer Pitfield was essentially self-taught. Most of the works in his substantial output are collections of miniatures, many written for children or amateurs, for whom he seemed to compose with an innate understanding of their capabilities. Larger works include a five-movement Sinfonietta written at the request of Sir John Barbirolli for the Hallé Orchestra, and concertos for piano, violin, recorder and percussion, and there is a quantity of chamber music written for many distinguished artists of his own and subsequent generations, including Goossens, Evelyn Rothwell, Archie Camden, Dolmetsch, and Osian Ellis. A speciality was composing for unusual instruments, including solo works for accordion, clarsach, xylophone and harmonica, and he even invented his own instrument, the “patterphone”, to produce rain-like sounds.

Despite being a somewhat idiosyncratic performer on the piano, Thomas Pitfield was strongly attracted to the instrument throughout his life, one of his earliest publications being Prelude Minuet and Reel, still his best known work. The idea of a piano concerto was first mooted by the Australian pianist Beatrice Tange, who had recorded Prelude Minuet and Reel for HMV Sydney, but when the resulting work, with string orchestra accompaniment, was sent to her, she returned it unplayed as not being “in her line” – though perhaps the fact that it was dedicated to the Liverpool pianist Gordon Green may not have helped. This early Concerto was eventually performed by another Liverpool pianist, Douglas Miller, but Pitfield subsequently withdrew it, and used the material in other works.

His next essay in the form, Concerto No. 1, in E minor, with full orchestra, was written in 1946-47 at the request of yet another Liverpool pianist, Stephen Wearing, who gave the first performance with the (Royal Liverpool) Philharmonic Orchestra under Hugo Rignold on 12th November 1949, winning critical praise from The Liverpool Daily Post. Subsequent performances followed under Louis Cohen, Boult (for the Festival of Britain), John Hopkins and Vilem Tausky, but then, despite having had three broadcasts, it fell foul of the BBC’s reading panel, to the composer’s composer’s chagrin. The offensive report was read to Pitfield at his insistence, and “the words registered as if burnt through my skin”, as he wrote in his autobiography – “Moody and Sankey – sentimental – academic – derivative-Liszt – produces a mouse…..” The work was, however, revived for Pitfield’s retirement concert at the RNCM in 1973, when it was played by Anthony Goldstone. The concerto, which is in three movements, bears many of Pitfield’s fingerprints, parallel triads, folkish melody, cheeky grace notes, lush hymn-like harmonisations, and black/white note cascades between alternating hands, as well as hints of Gershwin, Poulenc and Ravel. The composer’s own programme note for the work reads as follows:

“The interval of a fourth, with which the present work begins, is used as a kind of motto throughout. It sometimes undergoes a gradual chromatic expansion, as in the rocking bass which becomes conspicuous quite early in the exposition.

“The first subject provides, through many transformations, most of the contrapuntal fabric of the work, and the slow theme beginning the second movement, much of the harmonic. After a statement of theme 1 in the basses (with a little help from the cellos and bass-drum), it is restated in canon between piano and woodwind – except that the latter have it in reverse. Subsequently there are many transformations: expansions, compressions, ostinatos, canons in two keys, and finally, in the extended coda, fugal treatments.

“While one of the first movement’s three subjects is in contrast to the remaining two – and chiefly confined to the piano – echoes of the other two (and particularly the interval of the fourth) still persist. The third and more cantabile theme turns up again fragmentarily in the next movement.

“A solemn dirge-like theme (lower strings used antiphonally with the piano) initiates the second movement, which owes most of its existence to this theme. If the concerto were a play, the theme would probably be rightly regarded as the leading character. It is not, however, unconnected with plays, for it was written for an amateur production of Hamlet during my youth, when it provided the incidental music to the Death scene. Regarded graphically rather than purely musically, it can be traced (by outline) in the slightly mysterious scherzo which comprises a section of this movement.

“Movement 3 is gay and impudent – a Rondo with a fugal appendage. The gay mood and that of the fugue have a brief struggle for ascendancy, the latter prevailing. (The subject is again the first of movement 1). Soon the main theme from movement 2 gradually emerges (in solemn chords on the brass) like a threatening shape, at first faintly visible through the more transparent and complex texture of the fugue itself. Finally the dirge-like theme succeeds in flooding the fugue and emerges blazoning its triumph unchallenged, except that it accommodates the rhythm of the fugue subject (pounded on the bass drum and cymbal) to its own purpose. The elation of triumph subsides and some brief reference to other moods of the work (including a canonic compression of the Rondo theme) brings the work to an end.”

Piano Concerto No. 2 had an even more chequered history than the first. It was commissioned by Pitfield’s friend the publisher Max Hinrichsen at the instigation of Peters Edition in the United States, and bears a publication date of 1960. Piano students in American universities had to play a concerto movement lasting ten minutes for their performance auditions, and the intention was to provide a miniature concerto within that timespan, thus allowing for the variations in speed and mood that a single extracted movement would not provide. At the suggestion of the publisher, but against the composer’s better judgement, the work was published with the subtitle “The Student”. Not surprisingly, this was seen as patronising, and the work fell between two stools, being shunned by both professional and students alike, despite a play-through by a student with the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra. The composer’s collection of programmes does not include any reference to a formal première of the work.

The concerto is prefaced by a quotation from Milton: “…… and bring with thee Jest and youthful Jollity”. The opening movement, Dance-Prologue, starts with a typical Pitfield ostinato of ascending thirds, which recurs regularly throughout the movement, and melds together three very simple white-note tunes, a descending scale, a touchingly harmonized hymn-like melody, and a waltz tune starting with a repeated note motif. A touch of variety is provided in the middle section by some quasi-flamenco harmonies and rhythms in the orchestra. The second movement, Interlude on White Keys, serves as a scherzo, and derives its contrast from the opening movement (itself nearly all on the white keys) by being modally inflected. The main material for the movement is an insistent running figure introduced by the piano at the start, and the contrasting middle section is a tender and free folk-like melody (also modal) played by the piano alone. In the reprise the running figure is counterpointed against a reel-like tune on the clarinet, with the side drum providing rhythmic impetus, before the rest of the players break in with desultory interjections, the strings and woodwind rocking the movement to a hushed conclusion.

The last movement, a set of three variations on the English folksong “The Oak and the Ash”, acts as both slow movement and finale. After the solemn and expressive statement of the theme, the first variation is playful and spiky, in Pitfield’s favourite 5/8 rhythm, whereas the second, for piano alone, is a dreamy meditation. The third and final toccata-like variation brings back high jinks, with wayward escapades into remote keys before a resounding sequence of triads on the orchestra, accompanying a cascade of doubleoctaves from the soloist, bring the work to an exultant and sudden conclusion in the home key of C Major.

Studies on an English Dance-Tune was written for Pitfield’s pupil, the composer and pianist John McCabe, who first performed it, whilst still a student, at the Royal Manchester College in February 1961. The tune in question is “Jenny Pluck Pears”, and each of the seven short movements subjects a fragment of the tune to rhythmical, modal, or playing technique transformation. Arietta and Finale is an early work, published in 1932, whilst the ebullient Toccata, written for the Manchester pianist Lucy Pierce (a fellow teacher at the RMCM) was published in 1953.

The four movement Xylophone Sonata, published in 1987, was composed for the Hallé Orchestra’s principal percussionist Eric Woolliscroft. It bears the distinction of being the first work for the instrument to use a pair of fixed beaters in each hand, and has firmly entered the instrument’s still young repertoire.

John Turner

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