Sir Edward German (1862 - 1936)
Orchestral Works, Vol. 2
The Norwich Symphony No.2 in A Minor
The achievements of Edward German, particularly within the context of contemporary British music, were considerable. He was exceptional in rising to prominence in England during the last decade of the nineteenth century as a composer of orchestral music. Jettisoning the support of teaching and conducting appointments early in his career, he was able to work solely as a professional composer, fulfilling prestigious commissions from festivals and theatrical producers. Unlike Elgar, he was not compelled to set aside his orchestral ambitions to compose choral works for which there was a much more ready festival market: German never w rote a single festival choral "novelty" -a rare escape for an ambitious British composer of his generation; neither did he commit any offspring to the graveyard of English Grand Opera.
Born in the Shropshire market town of Whitchurch, and christened German Edward Jones (the G being pronounced hard in an anglicisation of the Welsh name Garmon - a mark of his Welsh ancestry), German"s youthful musical talents took him to the Royal Academy of Music in 1880. (lt was there that he adopted his professional name, seemingly to avoid being confused with another Edward Jones.) Organ soon gave way to violin as his principal study but his interest was drawn increasingly towards composition which he studied under Ebenezer Prout (sharing tutorial sessions with his friend Henry Wood). Many of his student works were played at Academy concerts. Often these were somewhat slight miniatures which only hint at their composer"s creative potential. His more extended early productions, however, were to prove more prophetic. A setting of the Te Deum won the coveted Lucas Medal in 1885, but far more significant in relation to German"s future career were the operetta The Two Poets, produced at the Academy in 1886 and given a one night stand at St. George?s Hall, and the symphony in E Minor, performed by the Academy?s Orchestra under Joseph Barnby in 1887.
German"s appointment as Musical Director at the Globe Theatre and the resultant composition of music for Shakespeare"s Richard III (1889) brought his name before a wider public. With the music he wrote subsequently for Henry Irving"s production of Shakespeare"s Henry VIII (1892) his reputation was firmly established. German"s career in the theatre and concert hall- to where his theatre music was successfully transferred -burgeoned with commissions from leading impressarios and festivals. A second symphony written for the 1893 Norwich Festival was generally well received but an element of negative reaction rankled. For George Bernard Shaw the work was beset by the same weakness he found in German"s first symphony: an inabi1ity to write absolute music without indulgence in a theatricality out of place in the symphonic context. Thereafter German played safe by casting his large-scale four movement works - The Leeds Suite (1895) and The seasons (1899) - as symphonic suites. A return to a more traditionally abstract form was planned for the 1901 Leeds Festival, but the violin concerto which he began was set aside in favour of a pressing and prestigious operatic commission.
Alongside his concert music, German continued to compose for the theatre. As well as further Shakespearean scores - Romeo and Juliet (1895), As You Like It (1896) and Much Ado About Nothing (1898) - he provided music for plays by contemporary dramatists such as Henry Arthur Jones (The Tempter (1893)) and Anthony Hope (English Nell (1900)).
In the opening decade of the twentieth century German, along with Elgar, was one of the few British orchestral composers of substance to be consistently favoured by concert promoters. Much of this popularity was gained through his lighter music. Such works as the Three Dances from Henry VIII and the Nell Gwyn Dances (written for English Nell) often exploit a distinctive - if limited - "Olde English" style (a species of musical mock Tudor) with which German came to be particularly associated. German, however, disliked being described as a composer of light music. For him the fundamental divide was between good music and bad music. He wished to be thought of not as a composer of "good light music" but as a composer of "light good music".
In many respects Sullivan represented an ideal to German, belying the notion that a composer need categorise himself as a creator either of light music or of serious music. For his part, Sullivan recognised a kindred spirit in German and is recorded as having told the dramatist Comyns Carr, "There is only one man to follow me who has genius, and he is Edward German" - and follow Sullivan he did. When, on the older composer"s death in 1900, The Emerald Isle lay uncompleted, it was German who was asked to finish it. Abandoning his violin concerto to take up the challenge, his work met with such great success that a new career as a composer of operetta was opened up to him.
During the Edwardian decade the lyric stage became the main focus of German"s creative energies and few works were written in other genre. The composer"s two most celebrated pieces, Merrie England (1902) and Tom Jones (1907), were largely designed as vehicles for his popular "Olde English" manner. Neither achieved quite the success of the greatest Gilbert and Sullivan works. In truth, in extending the Savoy tradition as they did, German"s operettas were allied to a style of theatre piece for which the public taste was dwindling. Nonetheless, as reinforcements of the myth of England"s merriness in days of yore - a once potent element of English self perception - Merrie England, and to a lesser extent Tom Jones, retained a special place in the affections of native audiences - at least until the myth itself had faded. Indeed, amateur productions of Merrie England have been so numerous that it quite probably holds the record for the greatest number of performances of any British opera or operetta written in the twentieth century.
For his last operetta, Fallen Fairies (1909), German collaborated with W. S. Gilbert. The project was not an entirely happy one, personally or artistically, and this may well have influenced him to withdraw from composition. Certainly German wrote very little subsequently. His two last orchestral works, the Theme and six Diversions and The Willow Song, were completed in 1919 and 1922 respectively. Thereafter the trickle virtually dried up. When asked in latter years why he no longer composed, German is said to have replied, "To tell the truth, I"m afraid to write anymore, they would only laugh at me now."
Although his compositional output diminished, German remained active as a conductor of his own music until poor health and eyesight forced his retirement in the late 1920"s. Much respected as a conductor (Stanford tried, without success, to persuade him to conduct the first American production of shamus O"Brien.) he gave up performing works by others to specialise in directing his own music. The first of a distinguished line of British composers to be invited by Dan Godfrey to conduct their own music at Bournemouth, German was much in demand for personal appearances at concerts and festivals. Programmes given over wholly or substantially to his works became a popular attraction. Meticulous in rehearsal, fascinating testimony to his standards of precision can be found in the impressive gramophone recordings -mainly acoustic -made under his baton.
Knighted in 1928, awarded the Philharmonic Society"s Gold medal in 1934 and admitted as an Honorary Freeman of the Worshipful Company of Musicians in 1936, German came to be regarded as one of the doyens of British music, a respected founder of the flourishing school of native light orchestral music whose leadership had passed to such younger men as Eric Coates, Haydn Wood and Albert Ketelbey. A vigorous champion of the composers" right to a fair financial return from their creative efforts, he was a leading figure in the early history of the Performing Rights Society .While honours and acclaim lauded his past achievements, German, in his old age, also witnessed the beginning of a decline in the popularity of his music. In particular, his more substantial orchestral works came to be less and less frequently performed. A brief note found among his papers reads poignantly, "I die a disappointed man because my serious orchestral works have not been recognised".
In his life time German"s music earned both general popularity and the high regard and affection of his fellow British musicians. Thomas Dunhill, recalling his personal association with Elgar, believed that German, of all British composers, was Elgar"s "firm favourite". Sir John Barbirolli, too, was a great admirer of German"s music which, he told Lady Barbirolli, gave him "more pleasure than most". Nevertheless, the fading popularity of his music which German had begun to experience was to lead to the almost inevitable reaction against it in the years after his death. The "Olde English" style was derided for a lack of musicological authenticity -a fatuous measure of artistry which, if generally applied, would devalue vast quantities of fine music -and the mistaken notion too readily accepted that it represented the entire range of German"s musical style. His best known essays in the style have never, however, completely disappeared from the orchestral light music repertoire. His operettas Merrie England and Tom Jones, too, still display their appeal in occasional productions, albeit usually by amateur companies. Of German"s more ambitious orchestral music -the music which demonstrates his broader range -little has been played in recent years. From time to time a welcome broadcast by the B.B.C. has fed the tiny flickering flame of his reputation in this area, but otherwise there has been little opportunity to hear the music. Indeed, of the works included on this disc only the Welsh Rhapsody has previously been available in a modem professional recording.
Listening to the concert music one is aware of stylistic affinities which are not typical of contemporary British composers. French, rather than Germanic, sympathies predominate and there are moments which, unexpectedly, call to mind the Russian romantics -Tchaikovsky among them. Paradoxically, though, German, like Elgar, was a stylistic cosmopolitan who w rote music which, in its totality, is quintessentially English. Interestingly, more than one commentator has noted the similarity of musical dialect shared by many passages of early German and early Elgar - but it is with Sullivan"s name that German"s is most commonly linked. Given that German is widely regarded as Sullivan"s musical heir in the field of operetta and light music, it is remarkable how "dissimilar" are their musical styles. To some extent, German"s reputation has suffered under the shadow of Sullivan. His operettas, in particular, sometimes attract unfavourable comparison by being evaluated on Sullivan"s terms rather than their own. After all, he extended -in more than temporal terms -the Savoy tradition; he did not set out to preserve it immutably. It is important to a proper appreciation of German -musically and historically- to bring him out from under the older composer"s shadow. Greater access to his orchestral music will help to do this, for - his years in operetta notwithstanding -orchestral composition was central to his creative life - whereas for Sullivan it was not.
German"s orchestral music certainly does not deserve the neglect that it has suffered, for it still has much to offer modern audiences. Beautifully crafted, colourful and vital, its pleasing and distinctive personality is still capable of inspiring the kind of affectionate regard it once so readily kindled in Elgar, Barbirolli and so many others.
German wrote his E minor first symphony in 1867, during his period at the Royal Academy of Music. It was revised for a Crystal Palace performance in 1890 but was little heard thereafter - although the two interlinked central movements were occasionally played independently. The impulse to write a second symphony was provided by a commission from the Norwich Festival Committee for a new work for 1893. Alberto Randegger, the Festival"s conductor, had introduced German"s music at the previous, 1890, Festival with a performance of the Richard III Overture and was, doubtless, keen to have a prestigious commission placed with his protege. The second symphony proved to be a more weighty and assured work than its predecessor, although the earlier work does have a vitality and melodic freshness that makes its overshadowed position somewhat underserved. Interestingly, both works have their origins in German"s later Academy years, when he was involved not only with the first symphony but also had sketches in hand for a symphony in B flat major. Although the latter work destined never to be completed, some of
its melodic ideas were salvaged for use in the first and second movements of the A minor symphony.
German"s second symphony was given a warm reception at its first performance on 3rd October, 1893, and brought to London a few months later. Critical response was generally positive, although a small dissenting faction managed to unnerve the composer. As George Bernard Shaw"s criticism, already noted, was actually typical of his discouraging response to native symphonic endeavour, it is a pity that German seems to have taken it so much to heart. Although he never wrote a third symphony, however, German retained faith in his Norwich Symphony. For years the music was only available in printed form as a two piano arrangement published in 1899. Then, late in life, the composer arranged to subsidise publication of the full score and parts. After prolonged labour, and strain upon German"s failing eyesight, Novello brought out the work in 1931. Fresh interest was sparked off in the work which was taken up by a number of conductors, including Henry Wood (who played it at a promenade concert in 1932), John Barbirolli and Adrian Boult.
Critical opinion in the 1930s, able to assess the work within a broader context than had critical opinion of forty years earlier, was generally appreciative of the works" virtues. The Times found it original and fresh whilst the Musical Times praised the symphony"s "calm and clear outlines", its "controlled emotional pace" and concluded that performance would "conduce more to the greatest happiness of the greatest number than nine out of ten of the novelties of recent years have done".
The symphony begins boldly as diatonic dissonances assail a purposeful rising motif in the bass that is to provide cornerstones for the first movement"s sonata structure. As the tempo increases, the movement"s second principal thematic idea begins to evolve, taking full flight at the allegro molto. Its restless dotted rhythms give way to a subsidiary motif, driving angular quadruple- time patterns across the basic triple metre, before the tonal centre moves from the A minor tonic to its relative major of C. (Most of the work"s tonal argument involves keys a third apart.) Two new melodies begin in this key: the first announced initially on oboe and cellos and the second -a yearning, faintly Elgarian theme - on violins. They help to claim their portion of the movement as second subject territory, but underlying ambivalances persist as the music pulls too strongly back to A minor for C major to feel entirely secure. It is only with the triumphant re-appearance of the opening motif that the relative major is affirmed. Canonic treatments of this motif provide the matter for the first part of the ensuing development. This leads to a reflective F major meno mosso section which dovetails both second subject themes before further energetic canonic writing leads to the recapitulation. This begins with the re-appearance of the dotted rhythm theme at the modulation to A minor, but slightly unsettled harmonies delay the confident return of the tonic until the opening motif thunders, fff, in the bass. The tonality shifts to the tonic major for the recapitulation of the second subject themes and remains there for the coda, which begins with an augmentation of the dotted rhythm theme in the bass and accelerates towards a climatic close with hammering solo timpani.
The opening of the slow movement quietly takes up the octave A"s from the close of the preceding movement and begins to muse upon a convolute melodic fragment. Chromatic harmonies gravitate towards D minor, but darker tensions dissolve as the music slips into the movement"s tonic of F major (a third removed from A minor and D minor) and the opening motif is released as a lyrical melody on solo oboe. This theme proves to be the foundation for what is essentially a monothematic movement. After a variant played by the strings, sinuous counterpoint draws its course through a tonally unsettled section. The music resists the pull towards D minor, preferring - as at the opening - the major tonality of F, in which the oboe once more plays another variant of the principal theme. The opening gambit of this forms the basis for a developmental passage culminating in a climax, at which a modal 0 minor momentarily unsteadies the arrival of F major for the movement"s closing section. Here solo and tutti first violins recapitulate the material of the opening F major portion, leaving flowing wind lines to recall earlier material as a calando coda unfolds over tonic and dominant pedal points.
When first produced, the symphony"s two central movements were interlinked, like those of the first symphony. At a relatively early stage, however, German re-wrote the opening of the allegro scherzando to separate it. The scherzo of the symphony, this movement comes closest to the composers lighter style. Of the symphony as a whole, and this movement in particular, German w rote in a programme note,"... there is not much of the "Old English" idiom in the work ...In the Scherzando (third movement), however, Sir Edward seems thoroughly to enjoy himself on his native heath".
Hints of the scherzo theme are first heard over a dominant pedal which prepares for its arrival piano, delicato in G major. Immediately the abstract, rather than choreographic, nature of the "dance" is apparent by its opening irregular phrase length of five bars. The scherzo section follows the common precedent of an AABA structure, but with the novelty of the final A portion being in the tonic minor. The B portion serves as a development section, scattering fragments of the principal theme between woodwind and strings before the dominant key (D Major) prepares for the G minor return of A. The D major "trio" introduces a lovely tranquillo theme that once more calls to mind Elgarian parallels - pre-echoes of The Wand of Youth or the Nursery Suite, perhaps? A return to the scherzo material seems to prepare the way for a recapitulation but its progress is interrupted by a maestoso reference to the trio theme before the preparatory gambits of the movements opening finally lead through to the reappearance of the scherzo. This appears in curtailed form, finally evaporating, ppp.
A broad, chorale-like idea opens the Finale. This is transformed at the allegro molto into a crisp theme played over a tonic pedal. German indicated its character in an annotated score: "Fast (in the Hungarian accent)" -one remembers his predilection for the Hungarian Gypsy style, evident in such works as the Gipsy Suite and the Suite for Flute and Pianoforte. The bass breaks away from its pedal point to support a martial subsidiary idea before the tonality slips into F major for the second subject - the unorthodox choice of key here recalls the third apart A minor / F major relationship between the first two movements. A bright syncopated melody marks the arrival of the new tonality and this is developed canonically before the exposition closes firmIy in F major. After the intricate developmental nature of the second subject, the section which follows begins with a spacious reference to the opening pseudo- chorale and goes on to relate this to the "Hungarian" first subject theme. The contrapuntal development of the second subject material then continues afresh, the music reaching a Grandioso climax, (which picks up a fragment from the close of the "chorale") and presses on with theatrical ferocity, to subside for the pianissimo commencement of the recapitulation. The second subject material, unexpectedly transformed into minor mode, provides a lilting transition into its recapitulation proper in the tonic major. The treatment this time is transparent I y delicate and leads, via chromatically rising lines, to the coda. This begins with the chorale theme -surprisingly in the tonic minor - on trumpets, then proceeds to gather pace for a decidedly theatrical close.
Most of the short orchestral pieces, on which rested much of German"s popularity with the, public at large, were originally written for the theatre - although often with an eye to their wider potential. The Valse Gracieuse, however, originated from an extended concert work, the symphonic Suite in D minor, commissioned by the 1895 Leeds Festival- hence its alternative title, The Leeds Suite.
It is likely that Sullivan"s conductorship of the Festival was, to some extent, responsible for the choice of German to compose a new work. The Leeds Suite is an ambitious four movement work which demonstrates that its composer"s symphonic ambitions and abilities remained alive -even though he was never to write another symphony as such. Among the features of the suite is an elegaic slow movement, scored for solo saxophone, strings, harp and timpani, and the work as a whole certainly had its champions - who included Stanford - but it was its second movement which was to gain popular success when independently issued as Valse Gracieuse.
German"s waltz owes little to the Viennese pattern but, as the title suggests, he acknowledged a certain flavour. Essentially, however, it is a captivating example of the peculiarly English type of quick waltz. It is not only the brisk tempo- indicated by German"s metronome marks and sustained in his own recorded performance -which takes the music out of the ballroom, the manner in which the principal theme is developed, the freedom from an insistent background of the characteristic waltz accompaniment and the overall sense of symphonic integration make this essentially a concert work.
The orchestration is particularly deft, with some intricate filigree work in the woodwind. The scoring of the minor key melody which opens the central episode is especially daring: a rich, almost Slavonic, melody in the tenor register with off-beat horns but no harmonic bass - on the beat or otherwise. The character of the theme here is reminiscent of the brooding waltz, "Lonely Life", in the Gipsy Suite of 1892. Overall, though, this fine waltz looks forward to the celebrated waltz-songs in Merrie England and Tom Jones, to the a la Valse section in the Theme and six Diversions and to the quick waltzes of that other English master of the genre, Eric Coates.
The Welsh Rhapsody is probably the most performed, nowadays, of German?s extended orchestral works. It was written for the 1904 Cardiff Musical Festival where it made an overwhelming impression at its premiere. At first German had difficulty in deciding how best to fulfil the Cardiff commission and rejected various possibilities, including a shakespearean Suite, before hitting upon the idea he was to pursue. His first biographer, W.H. Scott, quaintly recalled the moment of inspiration:
One morning, musing over a pipe of tobacco after breakfast, the thought suddenly flashed across him: "Why not something of a purely Welsh character? And what more appropriate than a Welsh Rhapsody?"
Furnished with a couple of volumes of Welsh melodies by one of his London-Welsh friends, German set about selecting the traditional tunes which he was to fashion into the rhapsody. The work is, however, more than a sequence of arrangements. German managed to use the traditional material as the basis for a work which is stylistically very much his own. This he did not so much by incorporating original material but through his distinctive treatments of the Welsh tunes themselves. The work"s four sections, played without a break, correspond in character to the movements of a symphony; but it is the genuinely symphonic handling of the material that makes its description as a miniature symphony apt.
Each section is numbered in the score and headed with the familiar English titles of the tunes (not all of which are literal translations of the Welsh) as follows:
I. Loudly Proclaim
II. Hunting the Hare - Bells of Aberdovey
III. David of the White Rock
IV. Men of Harlech
The first section is a ternary structure based on the stately processional strains of Ymadawiad y Brenin (The Departure of the King), with a central episode in which fragments of the traditional melody are developed amidst German"s own contrasting secondary ideas. The second section provides the scherzo with its transformation of the spritely Hela"r Ysgyfarnog (Hunting the Hare) into a sparkling tarantella - one of German"s favourite dances. Its pervasive rhythms continue as a background to the new theme, Clychau Aberdyfi (The Bells of Aberdovey), which is introduced in the trio-cum-development episode. The harp, the Welsh national instrument, is given an effective melodic passage at the first appearance of this tune, whose words tell of the ringing bells of Cantre"r Gwaelod, the lost lands submerged beneath the waters of Cardigan Bay.
One of the loveliest of Welsh melodies, Dafydd y Garreg Wen (David of the White Rock), provides the material for the slow movement. Here again the composer creates a central section in which fragments of the principal theme are freely treated and explored. German came to feel a particular affection for this tune which he requested to have played at his funeral.
The finale begins with a distant march rhythm, increasing in volume as if moving closer, first with fragments of the theme heard between ominous rhythmic reminders of the opening movement on horns and trumpets, only to recede and begin a second advance that finally culminates in the triumphant arrival of the Men of Harlech to their famous march, Rhyfelgyrch Gwyr Harlech (The Advance of the Men of Harlech). The consummate skill with which melodic snatches are tossed about the orchestra brings to mind the famous march in Tchaikovsky"s Symphonie Pathetique, but the obvious parallel the movement draws is with the Rdk6czy March from Berlioz"s La Damnation de Faust. Comparisons aside, however, the finale succeeds on its own terms as an outstanding example of its genre, a masterly climax to a brilliant orchestral showpiece.
Extremely popular in German"s lifetime, the Welsh Rhapsody was the last orchestral composition of his own that German conducted in public - fittingly at Aberystwyth in 1927. He described the reception on that occasion as "tremendous". Nearly seventy years later, at a concert held in the same town to celebrate the centenary of the University of Wales, the work was still capable of raising an audience to its feet -a response not accounted for simply by its special appeal to a Welsh audience.