Friday, 13 January 2012

It was on the eleventh of April...

Australian maverick composer Percy Grainger walked out one morning in the April of 1905 and recorded a folk-singer from Brigg, Lincolnshire called Joseph Taylor. The wax cylinder survives and Taylor can be heard singing Brigg Fair here, with a graceful guitar accompaniment by modern folk artist Gloria Jeffries. (Taylor sang unaccompanied on the Grainger recording). 

Grainger arranged the song for solo tenor and chorus, and that beautiful piece can be heard here (sung by Ian Bostridge). 

As this post concerns Delius's orchestral variations on Brigg Fair, what is so interesting about the Grainger arrangement is that its adventurous harmonies have a scent of Delius about them. This is probably to be accounted for by the fact that they both drew on the same Grieg and Wagner brew as the root of their styles (Grainger was very firmly to add Delius himself to that brew after they met in 1907.) The dates of composition for the Grainger are 1906 and for the Delius 1907-08.

Delius's Brigg Fair is styled 'an English rhapsody', and rhapsodic it most certainly is - like so much of the composer's music. It begins with a pastoral evocation that, like the opening bars of On Hearing the First Cuckoo of Spring, is deliciously atmospheric. A flute sings gently, like a bird, over dreamy harp figuration, before the strings enter beneath with typical added harmony chords. The Grainger arrangement is then transcribed, first for the woodwinds lead by solo oboe, then for solo flute and strings, then for strings alone, then for flutes and clarinets with strings. So the variations initially begin as restatements of the modal tune in various orchestral hues and against a backdrop of varying harmonies before becoming much freer. The first freer variation begins immediately with Delius's trademark lilting rhythm turning the tune into a slow and stately dance with running figures for the violins. Horns and then a solo trumpet continue to ring the changes on the colours of the theme. There's then a rhapsodic central section, begun by the solo flute from the work's opening, where strict variation form flies out of the window. The melody here is a new theme. (Some of the phrases here have always reminded me of something else, but I've only just realised what - a phrase from Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet. It's a fleeting moment and almost certainly not worth me passing on to you, but still now I've got it off my chest. So there!) This particularly gorgeous, peaceable stretch of the score eventually rouses itself from its languor with a brass-led variation (with percussion) and this leads on to a crescendo and a brief climax. The next section continues the rhapsodic treatment of variation form, albeit more solemnly, with trumpet and trombone leading a march with an off-the-beat accompaniment. The flute from the opening returns over a steady tread from the drums before a slight spring enters the music's step (only slight, this is Delius after all!) and bears us towards the next crescendo towards a majestic climax and then, characteristically, the variations end and there starts a long, slow, soft fade into the sunset with a glowing, nostalgic recreation of the atmospheric music of the rhapsody's opening pages. 

The climaxes are few and far between in Brigg Fair and the music remains mostly tranquil in mood throughout, as is to be expected from this composer. The folksong is about love and there is certainly love music here, especially in that ravishingly romantic central section. This is, for me, the finest music in Brigg Fair and a passage I just love listening to, not matter how many times I hear it. The opening is loveable too, totally impressionistic in character, all about conjuring up the beauty of the countryside, which it does very successfully I would say, and the coda is beautiful too. If you don't know Brigg Fair, I strongly recommend you give it a try.

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