English Chamber Music Festival
Gustav Holst (1874-1934) - Wind Quintet in A flat
This little-known work for winds from the pen of Gustav Holst dates from 1903, the year he resolved to give up playing in orchestras, eke out a living as a teacher and concentrate on composition.
Holst had professional insight into music for wind instruments. After being persuaded by his father to take up the trombone as a cure for his asthma the youngster soon developed a talent and, as a hard-up student at London’s Royal College of Music, began earning some cash playing the instrument professionally in theatre orchestras and seaside promenade bands.
His friend and fellow student Ralph Vaughan Williams remarked that Holst’s ‘sure touch’ as a composer was largely thanks to his work as a practising musician – ‘He had learnt his art, both technically and in substance, not at second hand from text books and models, but from actual live experience’.
Nevertheless, Holst benefited greatly through his RCM studies in composition with the tutor of his choice, Charles Villiers Stanford. His admiration for the music of Stanford’s friend Arthur Sullivan may have initially influenced such respect, but Stanford, a traditionalist in the Brahms mould, was a persuasive teacher and wasted no time in trying to wean Holst off the then-pervasive influence upon RCM students of Richard Wagner’s music, writing the comment ‘It won’t do, me boy; it won’t do’ on at least one of his pupil’s exercises betrayed by the style of the Bayreuth master.
Holst’s sympathies for wind and brass are eloquently expressed in the Wind Quintet in A flat, one of his few chamber works and one not published in his lifetime.
As a student it was required of Holst that he should write pieces in the form of air and variations, and it would appear that such exercises in variation technique certainly brought rewards through this melodious three-movement miniature.
Sir Arthur Bliss (1891-1975) - Clarinet Quintet
“Do you know, in the course of my life I have been three things,” Sir Arthur Bliss told an interviewer, shortly before his 75th birthday. “I have been ahead of the times, of the times and now behind the times. But I don’t in myself feel any different”. In truth, Bliss’s whole career was marked by his experiences in the Great War (Bliss was wounded on the Somme in 1916, and gassed at Cambrai in 1918; his brother Kennard had been killed in action in 1916). Sometimes (as in his epic choral symphony Morning Heroes) he confronted it directly: at other times he reacted against the tragedy, in dazzling and often playful acts of musical defiance.
The Clarinet Quintet, written in 1931, finds a middle path: simultaneously intimate and extrovert, and dedicated to Bliss’s friend Bernard van Dieren – a linguist, a chemist and a composer, and in Bliss’s words, “the most enigmatic personality I have ever met”. The Quintet was premiered by Frederick Thurston and the Kutcher Quartet at a private concert for Dieren at Bliss’s home on Hampstead Heath – and the composer himself tells the rest:
The opening movement is a flow of ‘conversation’ between the five instruments. The clarinet starts the discussion, shortly afterwards the viola joins in, then the cello, and last of all the two violins add their comments. The music throughout is euphonious and lyrical. The second movement is an extended scherzo, strenuous and dramatic. It follows a fairly traditional sonata form and calls for vital rhythmic playing from all the five instrumentalists.
The third movement is a rhapsodical romance well suited to the expressive melodic power of the clarinet, while the final is all sprightly brilliance with cross rhythms to add to the zest. Towards the end there is a moment of tranquil lyricism, but the peroration soon follows with laughing gaiety.
Sir Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006) - Wind Quintet Op.2
As wartime principal trumpet of the London Philharmonic, the aspiring composer Malcolm Arnold learned his craft on the road. The musicians of the LPO were despatched across the UK on a continual round of morale-boosting concerts, and, finding himself with more-or-less random combinations of players, Arnold applied the wartime virtue of “make do and mend”. He rapidly learned how to write playable, entertaining music for whatever instruments the schedule threw him, and the knack never left him. This Wind Quintet Op.2, dating from December 1943, was one of his very earliest works: paving the way for a career that would include a Toy Symphony, concertos for mouth-organ, guitar and recorder, over 100 film scores and of course his “Grand, Grand Overture” Op.57 for three vacuum cleaners, floor polisher and orchestra.
But even this early in his career, Arnold’s fingerprints are all over this short, brilliant work: his clarity, his understanding of each instrument’s character (since he knew exactly who would be playing each part, he could treat them like the friends they were), and (very much to the fore) his irrepressible and sometimes outrageous sense of humour. There’s an almost jazz-like sense of mischief in the crisp first movement; horn and bassoon quietly subvert the central scherzo and the finale is the least military march imaginable (later in the war Arnold literally shot himself in the foot to get out of the army). It’s positively disconcerting, in fact, and it ends with a distinctly lop-sided smile. After a BBC broadcast on 8th August 1944 – when the five LPO musicians were horrified to discover that they had just ten minutes to rehearse this twelve-minute work – the score of the Quintet was mislaid; to be rediscovered among the effects of the clarinettist Stephen Waters only in October 2002.
Dame Ethel Smyth (1858–1944) - String Quintet in E major, Op.1
Ethel Smyth was the daughter of an artillery major-general, and her whole career was something of a battle. She fought her way to a musical education in Leipzig, and in an age when any female composer needed determination, she faced down all-male orchestras and saw her operas staged in major European houses. Mahler was an admirer of her masterpiece The Wreckers (1906); her final opera Entente Cordiale was premiered by the City of Birmingham Orchestra in 1926, with the composer herself conducting. In 1910 Smyth temporarily retired from her musical career to devote herself to the campaign for women’s suffrage, and in 1912 she served a two month gaol sentence in Holloway Prison after being arrested for stone-throwing in the Suffragette cause. In 1922 she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire for her services to music – the first female composer to receive that honour.
As a student in Leipzig, Smyth studied with Brahms’s friend Heinrich von Herzogenberg, who introduced her to a whole circle of eminent musicians. She composed this String Quintet – the first of her compositions that she considered worthy to be published – in 1883. “How we made music that spring!” she remembered in her memoirs, “Playing every chamber work we could cope with, on Busch’s immortal principle:
For music making in the home,
Courage is more useful than skill”
But whatever Smyth’s qualms about performing, the Quintet – for string quartet plus an additional viola – reveals a young composer of huge energy, steeped in the craftsmanship of the German romantic masters, but with something unmistakably personal to say. It was premiered in Leipzig early in 1884: both Clara Schumann and the great violinist Joseph Joachim took a keen interest. Smyth’s close friend Lisl, however, was convinced that Smyth’s skill and energy on horseback was the inspiration for the galloping central Scherzo.
Royal Northern Sinfonia perform English Chamber Music Festival on Saturday 11 February 2023 at 8pm in Sage Two. Click here for concert tickets and information.