Thursday, 21 February 2013

Music inspired by the hills

The beautiful hills and valleys of northern England have for centuries inspired some of this country's most famous poets, writers and painters. However, it seems that this is not the case with the country's most famous classical composers. One could search in vain through the catalogue of works of Britten, Elgar, Holst, Vaughan Williams or Walton for music inspired by the countryside of northern England.

In addition to my love of hill walking I also have a passion (nay, addiction) to collecting music. Over the last 4-5 years I've spent quite a lot of time exploring the music of well known, and not so well known, English composers and during this time I've discovered a small, but interesting body of work, that does have direct links to the Lake District, Yorkshire Dales and even the Forest of Bowland. This blog is about this music and the composers who wrote it.

Perhaps the best known of these composers is Frederick Delius (1862-1934). Born in Bradford to German parents the young Delius was brought up in Yorkshire. After brief stints working in Sweden, and most notably on an orange plantation in Florida, Delius studied music in Germany before settling down in France. Probably his most famous composition is 'On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring' one of a number of quite beautiful musical portraits of nature. Delius composed a number of works inspired by his love of the hills including, 'Over the Hills and Far Away' (a personal favourite of mine), 'On the Mountains' and 'Song of the High Hills'. The latter is Delius's own personal vision of, "the joy and exhilaration one feels in the mountains and also the loneliness and melancholy of the high solitudes and the grandeur of the wide far distances". Interestingly, these works all seem to stem from his love of the Norwegian mountains rather than the landscape of his native Yorkshire.

The one work of Delius's that seems to have definitely have been inspired by Yorkshire is his 'Northern Sketches'. First performed in 1915 the work is an orchestral suite with the following sections; 'Autumn: The Wind Soughs in the Trees', 'Winter Landscape', 'Dance', 'The March of Spring: Woodlands, Meadows and Silent Moors'. It has been noted that the first two pieces in particular are, for Delius, surprisingly bleak, even desolate. On the other hand anyone with any knowledge of the Pennine moors near Bradford will know that, especially in autumn and winter, the words 'bleak' and 'desolate' are often apt.

Bleak Pennine moors in winter
After 1918 Delius began to suffer the effects of syphilis and by the late 1920's he had become blind and virtually paralysed. In 1928 a young Scarborough-born musician called Eric Fenby (1906-1997) travelled to France and volunteered to act as Delius's amanuensis. With Fenby's help Delius was able to commence composing once again. Fenby himself was also a composer, however he later destroyed most of his own works. One of the few pieces to have survived is the overture, 'Rossini on Ilkla Moor'. The piece apparently came about following a walk on Ilkley Moor with the actor and director Charles Laughton. Fenby skilfully takes the theme of the well-known Yorkshire folksong, 'On Ilkla Moor Baht 'at' and uses it as the basis for a work written in the style of the early 19th century Italian opera composer Rossini. About as far away from Delius's delicate nature pieces as can be imagined 'Rossini on Ilka Moor' is a brilliant pastiche and a hugely enjoyable piece in its own right.  

Ilkley Moor, not the best place to be caught in bad weather without a hat!

The piece by Fenby tends to be classed in that wonderful sub-genre of classical music called British Light Music. British Light Music tends to be fairly short, often descriptive, orchestral pieces in which melody and tunefulness is generally given more importance than the more intellectual strains of classical music. Although it had its heyday in the mid-20th century some of the most famous pieces of British Light Music can still be heard as the theme tunes for radio programmes today including Eric Coates's 'By the Sleepy Lagoon' (Desert Island Discs), Arthur Wood's 'Barwick Green' (The Archers) and Ronald Binge's 'Sailing By' used to precede the shipping forecast.

The vast expanse of Kielder Water

One of the most prolific composers of light music is the Rawtenstall-born composer Ernest Tomlinson (b.1924). After a period living in London after the war Tomlinson later settled down on a farm near Longridge Fell. In addition to a six year stint conducting the Rossendale Choir, Tomlinson also founded the Ribble Vale Choir in Longridge in 1989. The only 'northern' themed piece I've so far come across by Tomlinson is 'Kielder Water', a short orchestral piece commissioned for the opening of the Kielder Dam in 1983. The piece describes the tranquil beauty of what was, when it was built, the largest man made lake in Europe.

The beautiful Tarn Hows

Two Lakeland themed pieces of light music are 'Tarn Hows, A Cumbrian Rhapsody' by Maurice Johnstone and 'Striding Edge' by Matthew Curtis. Maurice Johnstone  (1900-1976), was born in Manchester and was, for a while, BBC Head of Music in the North. His 'Tarn Hows' is a fairly substantial piece of about 14 minutes which evokes the mood of the popular beauty spot in the morning, noon and evening. Johnstone also wrote a 'Pennine Way March' which I'd love to hear but which does not seem to be available on a recording. The Embleton-born Matthew Curtis (b.1959) belongs to a much later generation of light music composers. His 'Striding Edge' (2006) is a very catchy and surprisingly jaunty march, however, as the composer himself admits, anyone who approaches the real Striding Edge at anything like the tempo of this march would be risking injury or worse!

Striding Edge

A more extended, and more sombre work, that has strong connections to the Lake District is the 'Symphony No.3 - Westmorland' by Cecil Armstrong Gibbs (1889-1960). During the Second World War Gibbs and his wife were forced to evacuate their London home and move to Windermere. The Symphony No.3 was composed between 1943-1944 and was a reaction, not only to his new surroundings, but also to the tragic death of his son, David, who was killed in action on 18 November 1943. The subtitles of each of the four movements are, 'I will lift up mine eyes', 'Cartmel Fell', 'Weathers' and 'The Lake', the latter presumably Windermere itself. It is a moving work with many lovely passages and one which should be much better known.

Other than his 3rd symphony Gibbs wrote a number of other works inspired by the northern countryside including 'The Yorkshire Dales - Three Impressions for piano, violin and cello' (1926) whose movements are, 'Walden', 'Whernside' and 'Woodale'. The 'Three Pieces for String Quartet' (1927) has clear Lake District links with subtitles of, 'Above Blea Tarn', 'Winster Valley' and 'Loweswater: Calm After the Storm'. Neither of these two pieces seems to have been recorded and neither has his 'Lakeland Pictures - Eight Preludes for Piano' (1940). One piece that has been recorded is his suite for string orchestra 'Dale and Fell' (1953), whose three short movements, 'The Beck Climb', 'Rest at Noon' and 'Over the High Fells' describe in musical terms a walk out into the hills.

Walden, one of the less well known valleys in the Yorkshire Dales

Perhaps the composer most inspired by the north of England is the Manchester-born Arthur Butterworth (b.1923) who has for many years been a resident of Embsay, near Skipton. It has been said that, "virtually all his music has been the outcome of a contemplation of the aura of Northern England". Some of the more obvious of these includes the orchestral 'Dales Suite', another orchestral suite called, 'The Moors' and the 'Moorland Symphony' with words by the Saddleworth poet Ammon Wrigley. Whilst none of the above seem to have been recorded two that are available are, 'The Quiet Tarn' (about Malham Tarn) and 'The Path Across the Moors'. Both are beautifully scored and atmospheric orchestral pieces. Also worthy of note is his 'Coruscations', a depiction of the twinkling lights of the Morecambe Bay coastline as seen on a summer evening from a high and remote moorland road.

Malham Tarn

Although largely unknown to the wider public Butterworth is still by far the best known of a group called the 'The Lakeland Composers'. Their website features a few musical samples including a couple of works by Chris Gibbs, 'The Western Dales - 3 pieces for flute and piano' as well as a suite called, 'The Forest of Bowland'. The short extract to be found on the website is enough to make me wish that the full piece is available. Another member of the group, Leslie Meurant has written a suite for strings titled, 'From Eamont to Eden' and whose Piano Concerto No.4 is subtitled 'Rothay'. A short sample from his piano piece 'Neath Gable's Crags' can also be found on the Lakeland Composers website.

As the 'Lakeland Composers' website shows, the amount of music that is both inspired by the lakes, dales and moors of northern England and which is currently available on recording is probably the tip of the iceberg. Hopefully more of this music will be recorded in the future. Whilst many of the composers mentioned are fairly obscure it is not to say the music they have written is not worth listening to. It is anything but and for me personally I enjoy listening to a composer's attempts to put into music their feelings about the beautiful landscape I take such pleasure in exploring on foot.


The following works are all currently available on CD.

Butterworth, Arthur - 'The Quiet Tarn', 'Coruscations', Dutton Epoch, CDLX 7253
Butterworth, Arthur - 'Path Across the Moors', Resonance, LC 11303
Curtis, Matthew - 'Striding Edge', Campion Cameo, Cameo 2085
Delius, Frederick - 'Northern Sketches', Chandos, CHAN 9355
Fenby, Eric - 'Rossini on Ilkla Moor', Resonance, LC 11303
Gibbs, Cecil Armstrong, - 'Symphony No.3 'Westmorland', Marco Polo, 8223553
Gibbs, Cecil Armstrong, - 'Dale and Fell', Hyperion, CDA67093
Johnstone, Maurice - 'Tarn Hows - A Cumbrian Rhapsody', Resonance, LC 11303
Tomlinson, Ernest - 'Kielder Water', Marco Polo, 8223413