Friday, 22 February 2008

The Rustle of Spring…

Stuart Millson enjoys some seasonal stirrings from the world of classical music

After the deprivations and gloom of January and February, the time has now come for the rediscovery of mild breezes (rather than freezing winds!) and the warm rays of the sun. Music can help us along the way, especially with such famous works as the piano piece, The Rustle of Spring – once a popular item in salons and on the wireless. This lyrical impression for the piano was written by the Norwegian composer, Christian Sinding (1856-1941), and to my ears is just as evocative as Vivaldi’s more well-known “Spring” from his evergreen and ever-popular The Four Seasons.

On the downland

As I have just mentioned, Sinding died in 1941 – the same year in which Frank Bridge, an English composer (and teacher of the young Benjamin Britten) left this life. Spring was a particular inspiration to Bridge (as it was to his young protégé), and in the 1920s the senior composer embarked upon a breezy, involved orchestral work whose working title was “On Friston Down”. Bridge later changed the name of his ambitious piece to Enter Spring – and in its 25-minute span, the composer manages to evoke all the sights, sounds and feeling of a day in early March or April, including an exquisite woodwind passage suggestive of birdsong.

Other native composers to have responded to springtime include Ernest Farrar – a man born in the then small town of Lewisham in 1885, but who met a tragic end when serving on the Western Front in 1918. Farrar’s music has only recently been rediscovered and his creation of a May morning in English Pastoral Impressions conjures a radiant daybreak, long before the horrors of mechanised warfare intruded and shattered the idyllic England of those far-off days. Although a non-combatant, Frank Bridge felt the pain of the war very acutely, and dedicated his strange, brooding orchestral work There is a willow grows aslant a brook to Ernest Farrar.

An impression of time and place

Another lesser-known English composer was John Foulds – a truly avant-garde figure in his day – who, after the First World War, composed a huge World Requiem designed in its vastness to transmit a sense of peace and reconciliation to the whole of humanity. Foulds later made his home in India, inspired by Eastern philosophy and attitudes, but he did pay tribute in music to his native country. One of Foulds’s “Impressions of Time and Place” is entitled simply – April, England – a fervent, noble and deeply beautiful work for large orchestra, which seems to contain its own “rustle of spring”.

Spring Symphony

Earlier on, I made reference to Benjamin Britten. This famous musician, founder of the post-war Aldeburgh Festival, and our country’s greatest operatic composer since Henry Purcell in the 17th century, took to the theme of winter’s disappearance with great relish. Britten loved his native Suffolk, and it is said that whilst driving through the county on a particularly fine morning at the beginning of the year – with blossom and country houses coming into their own – the works of the great Elizabethan poets came to mind.

His Spring Symphony of 1949 was the result – a paean to Nature and the sun for three soloists, a boys’ choir, a large symphony chorus, and symphony orchestra – complete with a cow’s horn, which is blown at the work’s conclusion in a spectacular Mayday procession. Originally commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, this cornucopia of operatic-like choruses, yet combined with the more intimate spirit of an English song-cycle, received its first performance before a Dutch audience, under the baton of Eduard van Beinum. One of the poets set by the composer was Richard Barnfield (1574-1627). The tenor soloist (with harp accompaniment) sings:

And when it pleaseth thee to walke abroad
Abroad into the fields to take fresh ayre,
The meades with Flora’s treasure should be strowde,
The mantled meaddowes, and the fields so fayre.

Britten had a remarkable capacity to marry words to music, and his choice here is truly “open-air” and outdoor in its swiftness and sense of freedom.

Violent reaction

Finally, we can turn to Russia for a mighty bear-hug to embrace the new season. Rachmaninov’s cantata Spring seems to rush forward with the strength of a spring torrent; Glazunov’s version of the progress toward summer is balletic and carefree, gentle and carefully painted with delicate orchestral colour; but Stravinsky’s shattering The Rite of Spring brings to life a pagan world – an eruption of nature and of primitive human celebration. Stravinsky claimed that the inspiration for his Rite came from a two-hour period in the Russian countryside in which he actually experienced the very moment of spring’s arrival.

At the work’s first performance in Paris in the May of 1913, a riot ensued – so jagged and relentless was this astonishing composition that it prompted a violent reaction from some sections of the audience. Stravinsky had, at a stroke, moved music into a new era and sound-world, whose motion and gravity would pull art toward an abstract and atonal future – the legacy of men in our own era such as Pierre Boulez and his disciples. But could Stravinsky have sensed the violence that was to engulf Europe a year later; the violence that was to destroy (among many millions of others) the life of his fellow-composer, Ernest Farrar in a blasted war-scape of trenches and hollows from which all Nature had been driven?

Restlessness and rediscovery

Stravinsky, of course, would scarcely (if at all) have known of Farrar or his music, and for most of the 20th-century it seemed that Stravinsky’s “violence” had triumphed over the more remote pastoral visions from the provinces of England. Could it be, though, that the restlessness and anxiety of the old century has given way to a desire for simplicity and nearness to the soil, which is somehow represented by the rediscovery of Farrar and Foulds?

Bridge, Farrar, Stravinsky, Sinding, Britten, Vivaldi – centuries of music and completely different musical voices, but with one thing in common: an emotional response of the deepest kind to Nature, to home-landscapes and the universal regenerative powers of the season.


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About Me

Mike Smith, is Chairman of the Conservative Democratic Alliance (CDA). He was formerly on the Executive Council of the Conservative Monday Club. He is a Chartered Surveyor. Distinguished members of Mr Keith-Smith's family include James Keith, the legendary Prussian Field-Marshal, and his brother George Keith, hereditary Earl Marischal of Scotland and friend of Frederick the Great. Through his paternal grandmother he is descended from Frederick Philipse, Dutch-born merchant of New Amsterdam. Distinguished members of the family who subsequently made their life in England included General Sir Frederick Philipse Robinson. Smith was a member of the Conservative Party for 32 years, attaining area rank and serving for several years as Vice-Chairman of Portsmouth South Conservatives. In 2002 he was expelled from the party for attacking Iain Duncan Smith in print. Challenging this unlawful expulsion with a writ, he was readmitted and his costs paid by Central Office. In the 2005 General Election he stood as the UKIP candidate for Portsmouth North. Smith recently won a major test case for libel over the internet against a former schoolteacher.