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Exploring Music: "I Welcome Them" Suite de Ballet

The MHS Review 388 Vol. 11 No.10, 1987

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David M. Greene


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One of the things that sticks in my craw about this sleazy age in which we live is what I call language-inflation. Grubby lit­tle boys who have learned to plunk out a couple of chords on an electric guitar while croaking into a microphone are hailed as musical geniuses. A can holding a cup of olives is designated as giant size. An average-attractive young woman whose talent seems to consist of turning over alphabet cards is the costar of a national television show. You get the picture.

The subtitle of this record, at least at the present stage, is ''An album of Great English Works for flute and piano." (The capitalization is as it comes to me.) It's not that I object to the contents; indeed I welcome them, since most of them fill up chinks in the collection of one who has assidusouly collected recordings of what are now the British Old Masters for 40 years. But ''great''?

Well, I suppose everything is relative. I doubt that Vaughan Williams or Holst even in their most euphoric moments would have put the Suite de Ballet or the Terzet­to on the same footing with the B minor Mass by Bach or the Wagner Ring operas. But compared to the landmatks of English flute music, I suspect they rank high. In fact I can't for the life of me think of an English work for the flute later than the inciden­tal pieces written by the early 19th-century flutist Robert Nicholson.

I had never encountered the V. W. Suite de Ballet before, much as I dote on that Grand Old Man. Nor does James Day men­tion it or include it in the work list of his book on the G. O.M. in the Master Musi­cians series. Hugh Ottaway does include it in the Grove work-list (under ''Chamber Music''). giving ''?1916'' as its date, but

says nothing else about it. Small wonder! It consists of four minuscule movements in V. W. 's folksiest vein. Whether the, are arranged from folk tunes. deponent knoweth not.

Exactly how Elgar's Salut d'amour qualifies as flute music also remains a mystery. Elgar wrote it for piano and later orchestrated it. The publisher offered an arrangement for violin and piano, which I assume is the basis of what one hears on the record. As for its ''greatness," it has been roundly damned as a piece of popular salon treacle, though Elgar's biographer Michael Kennedy notes, that contrasted with today's ''ceaseless torrent of banali­ty,'' it actually begins to sound pretty good.

Sir Lennox Berkeley's knightly title is honorary, though he would have been the Earl of Berkeley had he not quarreled with his father. To judge from the opus number, higher than those listed in Grove as of 1980, this must be a recent work. (Sir Len­nox turned 84 this May.) Holst's little polytonal Terzetto, his only mature piece of chamber music, was written in 1925 but published posthumously. His daughter Im­ogen said that for a long time he wasn't sure that he liked it, but finally decided that he did.

Whether Anne Boyd qualifies as English is moot. She was born in Australia 41 years ago, came to England in 1969 to take a PhD at York University, and is now on the facul­ty of the University of Sussex. She has been strongly influenced by Asiatic musics, and her Goldfish through Sunimer Rain sounds Japanese rather than French Impressionist.

At the time of his too-early death in 1971, Alan Rawsthorne was one of the more highly regarded English composers of his generation, but he seems rather neglected now. His Sonatina (bigger than its name implies) is an early work, written when he was 31. (He did not take up music until he was 20, having found neither den­tistry nor architecture as appealing as he had hoped.) The music here is strongly Hindemithian, though I find it more ap­pealing than its models.

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