British Classical Music: The Land of Lost Content
, April 2010
The Concerto for String Orchestra was first given in the United Kingdom at a promenade Concert on 11th August 1949. However the first performance had been broadcast on Radio Hilversum in June 1949. This is a restless piece which in many ways epitomises the changes taking place in British Music at the time. Latter day critics have compared it to Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. However this seems to ignore the fact of the former work’s introspection and darker hues. I think there is a greater degree of unity in the Rawsthorne piece over and against the diversity of Britten’s ten characteristic pieces.
Paul Hamburger writing in the Autumn 1949 edition of the Music Survey was obviously impressed by the architecture and the textures of this piece.
He writes: ‘The laconic style, as opposed to mere “bitty-ness,” is much rarer in music than in literature, since only few composers, and still fewer listeners, are keen-eared enough to perceive, and leave unsaid, the associative links between several lapidary statements. Rawsthorne is one of these few, making us feel, rather as T.S. Eliot does, by his meaningful conciseness, that our musical, or general, education has been far from thorough. Nor can one say of his latest full-scale work, as one could of the Sonatina, that its material is not worked out in all its possibilities: here it is just a case of very individual material asking for so much working out, and no more. This is most apparent in the first movement, in strictest sonata form, with three well-defined subjects, the first contrapuntal, the second a lyrical passage for solo viola (the few solo passages occur in the 1st and 3rd movements, the slow movement being, as it were, a solo for the whole orchestra); a short development in double-counterpoint being followed by an emotional climax of the movement, a quiet solo-violin passage over a string tremolo; followed in turn by a shortened recapitulation. The 2nd movement, a kind of chaconne, has the same 4-note motto as ‘La Folia,’ used by Corelli and others, has some of the grave charm of those early Italian Chaconnes. Whether the quotation is conscious or not, one thing is certain: Rawsthorne’s musical roots strike very deep. Lastly comes a serious Rondo, thematically related to the first movement, with a quiet, almost stagnant first episode, and a fugue as second episode. The main section is progressively shortened until at last the few firm chords of the 2nd subject that are left put their foot down and call a halt. The work should be speedily published in miniature score.’