Sunday, 22 January 2012

French Cuckoos

Going back to yesterday's Music Matters and an earlier post of mine, there was an interesting discussion about 'The Delius Problem'. The presenter, Guardian writer and blogger Tom Service, began by highlighting a particular 'problem', which I hadn't considered - that Delius is seen as an English composer. That's long been seen as 'a bad thing' in certain quarters, entailing parochialism, insularity, cow-pat pastoralism, and whatever other bogey words can be slung at early Twentieth Century English music. Don't panic though as the guests agreed that Delius was far from being an English composer and far from sounding like an English composer, being 'cosmopolitan'. Why is this such a problem anyhow? Debussy was proudly French and sounds French to me. I don't hold that against him, even though I'm English. Why are we English so nervous about how others - especially our continental European friends - might see us? It seems to me to be rather similar to what the Australians call 'cultural cringe'. If Delius sounds English, so what? 

The composer Anthony Payne made some characteristically thought-provoking comments, arguing that the usual squabble between Delius's devotees and detractors over structure is one where both sides are missing the point. Delius didn't merely meander aimlessly nor did he transform old traditions but, in a profoundly original way that anticipates the 'moments' principle of Stockhausen, sought to get the listener to live for the moment, savouring each harmony as it passes rather than following an argument or looking for the overall structure of the piece. Where you are going and where you came from doesn't matter, on this reading, what counts is where you are. He contended that ignorance of modern music is responsible for people failing to see the extent to which Delius was a radical structural innovator. I can't say I'm wholly convinced by this, especially when pushed as far as Mr. Payne was pushing it, but it may have a grain of truth in it. Those chromatic chords that underpin whatever melody or thematic tag Delius is seemingly rhapsodising over are clearly meant to be savoured in themselves and in relation to what comes before and after them. The changes of orchestral colour are, similarly, there to be savoured for the own sake. But...surely not only for their own sake. Anthony Payne is, doubtless, trying to cleanse our ears when we listen to Delius, but he's surely going too far in his comparison. 

Anthony Payne also rejected the idea that Delius's music is full of nostalgia, saying that any nostalgia listeners might find in his works is purely a result of their own feelings of nostalgia being imported into the work in question. For him, Delius's music floats above the world, and that's its appeal. Again, thought-provoking but I do feel it to be nostalgic in mood, and I like that quality in it. I've noted - and you may have done so too - that 'nostalgia' seems to be another 'bad thing' in certain sections of the arts. 'English nostalgia', in particular, is a very 'bad thing'. Is Anthony Payne failing to find nostalgia in Delius's music because he doesn't wish to find nostalgia in music he seeks to advocate in favour of?

Anyhow, let me advocate in favour of Delius's A Song before Sunrise! This is late Delius, dating from 1923.  Its marking is an unusual one, 'Freshly', but it conveys what Delius wanted very clearly. The pulse is driven by that characteristic rhythm, the crochet-quaver-crochet-quaver pattern beloved of the composer. The first violins, accompanied by their divided string-fellows, present the main tune, whose occasional chromatic notes are amplified by the underlying string harmonies and by the wind comments above. The sighing phrases have a tendency to fall away, which helps give the work feel. The winds take turns to comment, fixing in particular on a five-note dotted figure that you'll become very familiar with as the piece progresses. This phrase and phrases from the main theme ride atop the harmonic flow and the lilting rhythm. The music surges onto a brief, less chromatic climax just about a minute in, where the music almost seems to break out into a gorgeous nostalgic waltz. It swiftly sinks away to bird calls - trills from the flute, cuckoo calls from the clarinets. The waltz-like melody returns briefly but beautifully on the cellos before a solo oboe introduces a new nine-note phrase to a stricter accompaniment of the crochet-quaver-crochet-quaver pattern but this temporary dancing mood quickly slackens and woodwinds call over dreamy string chords. There are some entrancing changes of colour in this passage. After a pause, the upper strings introduce a delightfully Debussy-like melody, full of consecutive fourths and drawing its notes from the pentatonic scale, before cuckoos guide us into a slumbering transition to the recapitulation. Yes, a recapitulation of the opening section. That's not a typical structural event in the Delian calender. The dying moments feature more bird calls, including a phrase meant to depict a cockerel greeting the rising sun, over a characteristically peaceful final string chord.  

It was almost certainly meant to evoke the beauty of the French countryside, where Delius had dwelt for so long. So those are French cuckoos and French cockerels! Still, it sounds English to me. 

English or French, it's a lovely piece of music that brings a warm glow to this nostalgia-filled, English heart.

(The paintings are again by Alfred Sisley, a French painter of English origin.)

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