Greville Cooke: Composer, Pianist, Poet and Priest

International Piano magazine (November/December 2014)

Pianist Duncan Honeybourne highlights the oft-overlooked pianistic oeuvre of Greville Cooke, a composer whose work he explores on his disc A Forgotten English Romantic

In recent years, there has been a welcome revival of the work of many British composers, resulting in the rediscovery of a rich seam of neglected piano music. The versatile Greville Cooke (1894-1989), a professor of piano and composition at London’s Royal Academy of Music (RAM), was also an Anglican priest, an erudite theologian and a prolific poet. His varied catalogue of piano music inhabits diverse expressive landscapes, ranging from melting lyricism and touching simplicity to white-hot, scorching intensity. It includes a handful of big-boned tone pictures, requiring a thoroughly professional technique and significant stamina, plus a range of highly evocative miniatures offering rewarding challenges for advanced students with imagination and good fingers. Also worthy of attention are some “teaching” pieces, which provide the less advanced pupil with engaging and characterful material of consistently high musical quality. Cooke’s music is often highly descriptive but, despite being a romantic at heart, Cooke was too rigorous an academic and thinker to have existed in an anachronistic vacuum and his music sometimes surprises with a brittle moment of dissonance or an unsettling change of metre.

Greville Vaughan Turner Cooke was born in London in 1894 and displayed early musical talent, performing three of his own piano compositions at the Bechstein Hall (now the Wigmore Hall) when he was just 11 years old. While he was at the RAM his Suite for string quartet was premiered at the Queen’s Hall, but the young Cooke resisted encouragement to focus solely on music, going on to take a degree at Cambridge and proceeding to ordination in 1918. Alongside his career as a clergyman, he taught at the RAM, lectured, examined and broadcast, and published textbooks on music and divinity as well as several books of poetry. Although his most substantial body of work is for solo piano, Cooke also wrote a Prelude for string orchestra, songs, choral works, church music and hymn tunes. His book The Light of the World, subtitled “A reconstruction and interpretation of the life of Christ”, became a favourite of King George VI during his last years. Cooke died in Somerset in 1989.

My disc opens with the sprawling Gothic Prelude, dark in colour and driven in character. There are some arresting chordal juxtapositions and brazen fanfares, alongside moments of whispered melancholy and seductive rapture. The lyrical moments are heart-stoppingly poignant and the “big tune” would not be out of place in a Western movie, while the swagger of the rugged climaxes conveys an obsessive, manic intensity.

Cormorant Crag (1934) is perhaps Cooke’s finest virtuoso tour de force. It takes its name from George Manville Fenn’s 1895 novel, set on England’s south coast in the 1830s and subtitled “A tale of the smuggling days.” This evocative tone-poem is sea-inspired piano music at its most dramatic and swashbuckling, laden with mystery, lyricism, whispered suggestions and ecstatic climaxes. Whispering Willows (1952) is a delicious piece of impressionism that bears a dedication to Cooke’s slightly older contemporary York Bowen. Touches of pianistic display are entirely at the service of the broader lyrical message. In the Cathedral (1929) is an atmospheric miniature, simple in design, texturally sparse and making extensive use of imitation.

Like John Ireland, Cooke found words, as well as landscapes and seascapes, a potent wellspring of inspiration. His Song Prelude (1955) depicts the Northamptonshire countryside and bears a famous quotation from Keats (“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”). In a magical central section, the melody transfers to the left hand and is accompanied by rippling right hand figurations. Haldon Hills (1929) is a rapt evocation of the stillness of a Devonshire beauty spot and takes as its point of departure one of the composer’s own poems.

The wistful melody of Sundown is set against accompaniment figures of melting liquidity. There are moments of tension as darkness falls, but the dominant mood is one of contented reverence. Reef’s End, the final track on my disc, is a haunting miniature masterpiece, laden with telling chromatic meanderings and rippling arpeggiated figurations. At the end, the composer requests that the muted recollection of the theme should sound “like a cor anglais”, before instructing that all use of the damper pedal should cease for the last four bars.

The three short pieces that comprise the suite Over the Hills find Cooke writing for the younger player: these are immaculately crafted vignettes capturing uncomplicated childlike pleasures. The suite is dedicated “To all my Grandpupils” and the pieces make splendid studies in different elements of touch and articulation. Cooke’s fresh melodic gift and lively musical imagination are in evidence throughout, and the enchanting Tree-Top Lullaby is especially touching. Bargain Basement is an amusing set of character pieces, remarkable for the craftsmanship with which they give musical shape to the composer’s ironic observations and musings. The titles – Throw-Out (Greatly Reduced), Cheap Line (Absolutely not to be repeated) and Going for a Song (Yours for a tenor, fiver, 3d), the last-mentioned with a satirical suggestion of operatic bluster – suggest a ready wit, and I particularly like Cooke’s tongue-in-cheek request that a folksy, Scottish-sounding passage in Genuine Reproduction be rendered “with a slightly kilted swing”!

High Marley Rest depicts the Surrey hilltop home of Tobias Matthay, Cooke’s beloved former professor. Headed by two quotes from Tennyson, it is tranquil and very English, with touches of John Ireland and hints of birdsong. There is no time signature; rather Cooke instructs that “The quaver pulse should be regarded as the constant unit of time throughout.”

So what pianistic qualities does Cooke demand of his interpreters? Ruth Harte, doyenne of RAM piano professors and one of the few people to have heard Cooke play, vividly remembers “the richness of his tonal spread.” Indeed, a full and flexible tonal palette seems to me to be one of the main prerequisites for playing Cooke’s music convincingly. It needs a big sound, but moreover it abounds in lyrical delights that yearn to be shaped with tenderness, voiced with artistic purpose and imbued with the elusive “singing” quality that is every pianist’s cherished aspiration. A broad sense of architectural outline is needed in the larger structures, while some of Cooke’s dense textures require space and focus to allow the rich canvas of musical intricacies to speak with clarity and poise. Cooke’s piano music may be orchestral in conception but, on closer investigation, it reveals itself as gloriously pianistic in design. There are many rewarding treasures to explore and they offer a fascinating insight into the world of a unique personality.