About this Recording
8.573668 - Harpsichord Recital: Lewis, Christopher D. - BERKELEY, L. / HOWELLS, H. / BRYARS, G. / JEFFREYS, J. (British Music for Harpsichord)

British Music for Harpsichord


Many eminent twentieth-century composers have been fascinated by the expressive capabilities of the harpsichord. Though its historical establishment is assured as the supreme keyboard of the baroque era, the instrument of preference for musicians such as Rameau, Bach, Scarlatti, Handel, among many others, the characteristic sonorities of the harpsichord have enticed a variety of leading contemporary composers to provide an extensive modern repertoire. This selection of compositions charmingly unites an awareness of traditional harpsichord idioms with progressive harmonies and modern sensibilities.

Sir Lennox Berkeley was indeed an English composer but deeply influenced by French traditions and the music of Ravel and Poulenc. He was no friend of the avant-garde and his music is rooted in tonality. The two pieces represented here are ideally suited to the spirit of the harpsichord. Mr Pilkington’s Toye (1926) refers to Vere Pilkington (1905–83), a talented amateur musician whose father gave him a harpsichord for his twenty-first birthday. Berkeley shared rooms with Vere for his last year at Oxford, and wrote a five movement suite for him in 1930. Vere Pilkington went on to have a successful career in business, becoming the managing director of Sotheby’s. A ‘toye’ was an occasional sixteenth and early seventeenth century title for any light type of virginal composition.

For Vere is described by Peter Dickinson, the biographer and editor of the composer’s Collected Works for Solo Piano as ‘this cryptic fragment’ which ‘announces the new up-to-date Parisian Berkeley’.

Herbert Howells was particularly influenced by the music of Parry, and studied at the RCM with Stanford and Charles Wood. In 1950 he was appointed Professor of Music at London University. His works include orchestral pieces, chamber and keyboard music, a huge amount of vocal pieces and sacred choral works, and he was also a prolific writer of scholarly articles.

The movements of Howells’s Clavichord, each dedicated to a musical personality, were composed over two decades, often subjected to change of dedicatees and the insertion of further pieces. Each of the selected movements represents salient characteristics of the person depicted.

The collection of twenty solos, of which thirteen are recorded here, is a sequel to an earlier suite entitled Lambert’s Clavichord, inspired by Herbert Lambert (1881–1936), a British portrait photographer and an amateur harpsichord maker, who lent a clavichord to the composer in 1927. The inspiration for Howell’s Clavichord, following Lambert’s early death, derives from Thomas Goff (1898–1975), the esteemed English maker of harpsichords, clavichords and lutes.

Thomas Goff, a distant relative of the royal family, left the profession of barrister to learn harpsichord making from Hubert Lambert. Goff’s Fireside refers to his well-known hospitality at his residence at 46 Pont Street, off Sloane Square, London, where he entertained many musicians.

Patrick’s Siciliano, originally intended for Sir Arnold Bax under the title of Bax’s Jewell, is dedicated to the composer Patrick Hadley (1899–1973), a First World War veteran who studied at Cambridge University and the Royal College of Music. After teaching at the RCM he was appointed as lecturer in music in 1938 at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, becoming Professor of Music in 1946. His compositions include choral pieces, orchestral music and songs.

Jacob’s Brawl is dedicated to the composer Gordon Jacob (1895–1984). Taken prisoner in the First World War, Jacob studied at the Royal College of Music where he taught composition from 1924 until 1966. Jacob wrote some four hundred compositions, comprising orchestral works, several concertos, chamber music, scores for films and theatre, a ballet, and a number of vocal works. A ‘brawl’ is an old English name for branle, a dance form of French origin popular in England during the sixteenth century.

Thurston Dart (1921–1971), one of the foremost scholarly pioneers of early music, was an eminent performer on harpsichord and clavichord. After studying at the Royal College of Music and service in the RAF, he lectured at Cambridge University, and became Professor of Music there in 1962. In 1964 he was appointed Professor of Music at the University of London. Dart’s Saraband is marked Lento, piangevole (Slow, plaintively). The poignancy lies in the stateliness of the melodic dance and the intricate labyrinth of harmonic subtlety.

Dr H.K. Andrews (1904–1965), from Northern Ireland, was a scholar, teacher, organist, composer, and editor, who studied at the RCM, Trinity College, Dublin, and in Oxford. After four years as organist at Beverley Minster he became a lecturer at New College, Oxford and later Balliol. Andrews’ Air expresses the organist’s quietly disciplined qualities in a piece of almost choral serenity.

Sir Adrian Boult (1889–1983), one of the great conductors, directed such orchestras as the BBC Symphony and the London Philharmonic. He became an ardent advocate of British music, recording music by Britten, Delius, Elgar, Tippett, Vaughan Williams, and Walton. Brangill, an alternative name for branle or brawl, is related to the basse danse of the fifteenth century. Boult’s Brangill begins entirely in the bass till the line is joined by higher voices and subsequent quasi-orchestral chordal and contrapuntal effects.

Dyson’s Delight is a movement of Bach-like clarity and order. Sir George Dyson (1883–1964), a personality of great experience and authority, held the post of Director of the RCM between 1938 and 1952. His creative output includes many large-scale choral works, orchestral pieces, chamber music and compositions for keyboard.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958), one of the greatest British composers, has two works dedicated to him here in the form of a Pavane and Galliard, the matching pair of dances of the Elizabethan age. Once again the dances unite an antique structure with a contemporary melodic and harmonic framework.

Finzi’s Rest, the most elegiac work of the suite, was written for Gerald on the morrow of 27th September, 1956. Gerald Finzi (14 July, 1901–27 September, 1956) is particularly remembered now for his beautiful songs as well as his choral pieces. However he also composed orchestral works and a small amount of chamber music.

George Malcolm (1917–1997), one of the most accomplished and charismatic harpsichordists and organists of his era, also directed the choir at Westminster Cathedral between 1947 and 1959. He made his mark as both conductor and composer, his most famous composition probably being Bach before the Mast. Malcolm’s Vision takes the form of a sarabande, expressing the intense side of Malcolm as well as his interest in early music.

The guitarist and lutenist, Julian Bream (b. 1933) is internationally acknowledged as one of Britain’s greatest instrumentalists. His career extended from 1947 until his retirement from the concert platform in 2002. Julian’s Dream evokes the gentle playing of a guitar and the tranquillity of lute music. The middle section deploys arpeggiated chords characteristic of plucked strings.

Finally the great achievements of Sir William Walton (1902–1983) are celebrated in Walton’s Toye, where quasi-orchestral textures and energetic movement recall the ebullient nature of his finest works such as Façade, Belshazzar’s Feast, and the film music for Henry V.

Gavin Bryars, an English composer with deep roots in jazz and the avant-garde, has produced in After Handel’s “Vesper” (dedicated to Maggie Cole and first performed in October 1995 at Pebble Mill, Birmingham), a virtuosic exposition of harpsichord expressiveness. Opening with freely played chords, the work evolves from a chordal Aria through a series of episodes exploiting the multiple possibilities of the instrument’s sonorities.

The composer has provided an introduction: “I have written a number of works for Early Music performers such as the Hilliard Ensemble … so I responded with interest to the request for a solo harpsichord piece from Maggie Cole. My first encounter with the harpsichord in a contemporary context was in 1968 when I worked as an assistant to John Cage in Illinois on his HPSCHD. My recollection of that work, and its use of chance operations, led me to the short passage in Raymond Roussel’s novel, Impressions d’Afrique where there is the fictional account of the blind Handel composing an oratorio, Vesper, by a curious set of chance operations involving sprigs of holly and coloured ribbons. This story drew me away from Cage’s method (there is no use of chance in my piece) to 17th and 18th century keyboard music and, with Maggie’s help, I became acquainted with a wide range of keyboard music and types of instruments which helped inform the writing of this piece. I was attracted to the quasi-improvisational ethos of the music of Frescobaldi for the single manual Italian harpsichord and, at the other extreme, to music written for the larger two manual German instrument. In the spirit of this music I have offered many options with ornamentation, suggesting some, writing out others completely, but also encouraging the player to use her invention and instincts to add others where not specified and generally to adopt an open approach to the piece.

John Jeffreys was a traditionalist in his approach to composition. Thus his works, a symphony, three violin concertos and about two hundred songs, were somewhat neglected in the avant-garde mood of the mid-twentieth century. His Four Little English Dances, described as ‘in the Georgian manner’, are delightful tributes to the harpsichord’s lyricism. Each movement is marked with a different date …as follows: first movement, 1946, Melksham; second, 1948, Stafford; third, 1945, Exeter, and finally 1953, Cheshunt.

Finally Goff’s Fireside is heard again, this time on the muselar, a Flemish virginal of the seventeenth century where the keyboard is placed off-centre to the right, imparting a particularly poignant tone quality.

Graham Wade

This recording is based on the PhD research work of Christopher D. Lewis. His doctoral work is entitled ‘The Making of the Modern Harpsichord’ and is in association with The Department of Music at the University of Southampton (UK), together with The National Trust and the Arts and Humanities Research Council. This project is based at the National Trust owned Mottisfont Abbey in Hampshire, the childhood home of historical keyboard collector Raymond Russell. The aims of the project include preparing a history of harpsichord revival in the UK, concentrating on the period from the mid-1930s onward, and to determine how the reinvention of the harpsichord by its advocates—musicians, collectors, cataloguers, instrument makers—influenced contemporary creative practice as well as fostering projects of historical revival.

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