The October meeting of the Shipston-on-Stour Music Society began with the business of the AGM and was completed in twenty minutes with only one major concern – that of a serious drop in membership, mainly as a result of the Covid pandemic. Several ideas and suggestions were noted in an effort to remedy the situation.

Refreshments followed before we sat back with keen anticipation for a Talk entitled “Discovering English Song” by member Barry Lingard.

“The Art Song” is a song of serious artistic purpose, written by a professional composer, as opposed to a traditional or folk song. The title is usually applied to solo songs, especially those of the 19th century. As his title suggests Mr Lingard had chosen to restrict his talk to English composers – and there are plenty from which to select his examples including Frank Bridge, George Butterworth, Edward Elgar, Gerald Finzi, Ivor Gurney, Gustav Holst, Hubert Parry, Roger Quilter, Charles Stanford and Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Not only were we treated to recordings of so many examples by these composers but Mr Lingard had recorded them all himself. His beautiful voice with clear diction filled the Methodist church delighting the audience and making the event a truly personal occasion. To finish he chose “The Floral Dance”, not an art song but a popular ballad which encouraged some enthusiastic foot-tapping and was familiar to most of those present. As he explained, years ago there was a piano standing in most “front rooms” and trying to pick out the tune of a ballad heard on the radio would have been a normal pastime for members of the family. A simpler life!

At the November meeting of the Shipston Music Society, musician Howard Skempton gave a talk entitled “What makes a composer?” Howard has worked as a composer, accordionist and music publisher. He studied in London with Cornelius Cardew and has won several awards for some of his compositions. He is now a lecturer in composition at the Birmingham Conservatoire. Throughout the evening Howard was assisted by Charles Matthews at the keyboard, playing with his usual expertise, all the examples required to illustrate the points being made.

Howard began by explaining that as a 17 year old, his piano teacher had allowed him to learn whatever he chose, but then things changed when his next teacher presented him with a planned scheme to widen his knowledge and improve his technique! He began to listen to lots of music in a wide variety of styles and became interested in the compositions of John Cage. Immediately he was inspired to start writing his own music in this more modern genre. He experimented with ideas to try to find the necessary harmonic structure and choice of instruments to achieve the desired results.

In 1973 he composed a piece for accordion, later arranging it for the piano. We heard the piano arrangement first before Howard played the original on his accordion – a very interesting listening experience.

The evening ended with extracts from a song cycle based on the poem “Man and Bat” by D.H.Laurence. Composed in 2017 it is scored for baritone soloist with string quartet, double bass and piano and describes the antics which ensued during the man’s efforts to persuade the bat to fly out of the room. It was a fitting finale to a fascinating journey from inspired teenager to widely acclaimed composer

At the November meeting of the Shipston Music Society we welcomed back Tim Porter for another fascinating talk linking poetry and music. This time he chose to explore the lives and work of Thomas Hardy and Gerald Finzi. He began by comparing their backgrounds – Hardy, (1840-1928) from a working class background and Finzi (1901-1956) of Italian/Jewish parentage whose family were wealthy. They were both shy and quiet as children, especially Finzi whose father had died when he was eight. On reaching adulthood both men had acquired a real love of the countryside and both wanted a partner to share this pleasure. However, as they both lacked confidence this was a daunting prospect and it took some years before they each met a young lady and eventually both were married.

Hardy’s poetry, sometimes archaic with perhaps an odd word order, obscure words or even words which he had invented, did not deter Finzi. He liked Hardy’s style and would compose a free-flowing vocal melody to accommodate the unusual rhythm of the poem. We heard an example taken from the song-cycle “Earth and Air and Rain” which was beautifully sung on the recording by Roderick Williams.

Hardy continued writing well into his eighties with over 1000 poems in total. Finzi, on the other hand, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease at the age of 51. He then composed furiously until his early death at the age of 56. Apart from songs his output includes choral works such as “Dies Natalis” and instrumental works e.g. the clarinet concerto and the deeply moving cello concerto written in 1955; the first performance was broadcast the night before he died.

As expected, this talk gave us a real insight into the lives and work of these two very talented men and especially the way in which Finzi could capture the essence of a Hardy poem and bring it alive in his songs.

At the November meeting, we enjoyed a very interesting talk on the life of George Formby, given by Matthew Sproston from Gloucester.  George Formby was born George Hoy Booth in Wigan in 1904 and his father was a performer who changed the family name to Formby thinking it to be a more appealing stage name.  At birth George was blind but a violent coughing fit when he was a few months old gave him his sight.  He began his career as a stable boy and jockey and only began performing on the death of his father.  George married another performer, Beryl Ingham  and we heard many amusing stories and anecdotes about George’s married life “managed” by Beryl.  She was to become an important critic of his act and succeeded in making him appear more formally dressed.  It was Beryl who suggested he should buy and learn to play the ukulele.

Throughout the evening Matthew delighted the audience with renditions of many well known songs including those banned by the BBC (until Queen Mary insisted that she wanted to hear the originals when he went to the Palace. The ban was subsequently lifted!).  The evening ended with a performance of “Leaning on a lamp-post” expertly delivered on the banjolele and the audience joined in most enthusiastically!  Very warm applause showed our appreciation for a most informative and enjoyable evening

Impressionist painters are very familiar to us all but their influence on the other arts is often overlooked.  Tim Porter, the local historian, visited the Shipston Music Society in February and gave members and guests an enlightening talk on the influence of these artists on the composers of the time. Members learned that the academic scaffolding that had prevailed up to that time was removed, allowing  music to flow in such a way as to give an impression of, for instance, a cornfield or a summer garden, grey clouds or “nocturnes”. The rule book was thrown away so that the fleeting nature of light so well known to us in the paintings of Renoir, Monet and others could be transposed into musical form.

It came as a surprise to some in the audience that composers such as Liszt and Smetana were part of this “new” music and they certainly might not come to mind as readily as Debussy or Delius.  But Smetana composed his Bohemian Woods & Fields a year after the famous Paris Impressionist Exhibition of 1874, and Liszt composed his Grey Clouds in 1881. Two British composers, Arnold Bax and John Ireland also responded to the impressionistic technique - with very different styles - but both broke away from the existing British nationalistic style that was becoming popular at the time.   This talk was liberally illustrated with enjoyable excerpts which proved to be a very relaxing and soothing way to end the week!  

Shipston Music Society was delighted to welcome Richard Roderick Jones to its November meeting.  Dr Jones came to talk to us about Tchaikovsky and Borodin, two Russian composers who were contemporaries but who composed very different music.   Tchaikovsky is  in a league of his own and we are all familiar with much of his music. So it was that we were told something about his lesser known music – the opera, Eugene Onegin, his Symphony no 3 and the 2nd Piano Concerto, which is tremendously difficult to play. Eugene Onegin is deeply influenced by Russian chants and the extracts that Dr Jones played certainly bore this out.  He also played an aria from the letter scene, which is the longest portion of the opera and perhaps the most famous part of the Onegin story.

Borodin belonged to the Russian Five, a group of composers which included Rimsky Korsakov and Glasznov,who wrote music in the Russian idiom and renounced any European influences.  Borodin was in fact a Professor of Chemistry at the University in St Petersburg and among other things, spent much of his life campaigning (successfully) for women to be admitted into the medical profession.   He called himself a Sunday composer, but despite this gave us some memorable music.  (Perhaps most memorably his music was adapted for us in the classic musical, Kismet).  Dr Jones illustrated this part of the talk with extracts from his opera Prince Igor,which had been orchestrated by Rimsky Korsakov, and which had a real Russian flavour, and the 2nd Symphony, parts of which were tightly written around few notes.

Ann Holland on behalf of the Society, thanked Dr Jones for his interesting talk and for highlighting some less well known music from two great composers.

We tend to associate British Music of the First World War with songs such as Pack up your Troubles .., Its a long way to Tipperary etc. But as those who attended the talk given by local historian Tim Porter learned recently, classical music was also being composed throughout that terrible conflict, music  that brought solace, inspiration and hope to an already musically literate nation.

This fascinating talk covered the music of Gustav Holst, Ivor Gurney, Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams and John Foulds.   The practicalities of composition made it hard for composers who were actively on duty.  So ideas were stored up for future composition, for example Vaughan Williams whose Pastoral Symphony so subtly and atmospherically caught the desolation and horror of the Western Front.  Then there was Ivor Gurney, already in 1914 a gifted musician and later on a poet, who incredibly was able to write in quiet moments between fighting battles.

here were others who didn’t participate in the war but still reacted to it such as Gustav Holst whose Planets Suite was written partly before and partly during WW1 (paradoxically Mars, the bringer of War was written before the war – a premonition of things to come).   Also reacting to the war – and this time contradicting it, Elgar wrote the music for The Starlight Express, a fantasy play which ran very successfully for weeks.   Finally we learned of John Foulds’ World Requiem, “A Cenotaph of Sound” and a call for pacifism for all nations, that was first performed on Armistice Day in 1923 and was performed with support of the Royal British Legion until 1926.  (Interestingly it was only first heard in Germany in 2014.)

The talk, which was liberally supported by extracts from the composers, was much appreciated by members and guests of the Society.

The work of an orchestra goes well beyond the public concert and most of the time is spent raising funds to keep the Orchestra afloat. This was the introductory remarks by David Curtis founder and artistic director of the Orchestra of the Swan in Stratford. It is well known that only about 40% of an orchestra’s income is derived from box office receipts the rest coming from Fund raising by Friends, grants from local government and Arts Council funding and every member of the orchestra has to play a part in this activity.

David then went onto explain the different a large concert orchestra with its full time members is from the small chamber orchestra which has to build its programme from free lance players. Large or small, both have to plan their activities well in advance and a lead time of two years or more is quite common. The programme has to be planned, venues arranged, players booked, marketing organised and when playing in venues around the country or internationally there is  additional work  arranging travel of players and the larger instruments. David is fortunate to have a small but dedicated staff in Stratford to assist with this work.

The most important thing a conductor of an orchestra does is lead the members of the orchestra through rehearsals and performances. Standing on a podium in front of the musicians while executing a series of specific arm movements allows his musicians to interpret these, gaining information such as how fast or loud to play and although they learn this as part of their education each develops a style of their own which makes each orchestra unique. Rehearsals are a fundamental part of the conductors work as he needs to describe exactly what he wants each member to do to get the specific sound he wants. An understanding of every instrument is therefore an important part of the job.

In the second half of the evening David played some extracts from recordings made by the Orchestra of the Swan concluding with Copland’s Appalachian Spring that had been recorded in the Townsend Hall in 2010.

The Ralph Vaughan William’s Society is a charity dedicated to widening the understanding and appreciation of the music of Ralph Vaughan William’s. Graham Muncy, a founding member and trustee, was well placed to talk to the members of the Music Society about the composer. It was fitting in this centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War that Graham was able to explain the significant effect this had had on Vaughan Williams, his music and compositions at that time.

Having already composed the ever popular “Lark Ascending” in the summer of 1914, which seemed to capture the tranquillity of the languid days before the outbreak of the Great War, his world was soon to change quite dramatically. At the age of 44 in November 1914 he chose to enlist as a private in the Royal Army Medical corps signing up for a 4 year tour of duty.

However extensive training meant he first saw action in France in 1916 heading for Ecoivres, a few miles north-west of Arras, on the slopes of Vimy Ridge assisting in the task of evacuating the wounded. Like Philip Larkin what he saw had a profound effect on him and his music and Graham played several extracts from compositions reflecting the more sombre mood existing in the country at that time.

Graham went on to explain that RVW’s music had been largely ignored since his death in August 1958 and the Society was formed in 1994 to ensure his legacy as a quintessential English composer was not forgotten. He also had local connections when in 1913 he conducted the small orchestra at the Stratford-on-Avon season. He was knowledgeable about Shakespeare which proved invaluable when he composed his opera “Sir John in Love”

Society chairman, Richard Baldwin, concluded the evening with a vote of thanks to Graham, reflecting on the insight he had afforded members of the Society and thanking him for a superb presentation illustrated with music.

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