Journeys into English piano music

Ireland Sonatina, London Pieces & Sarnia; Bridge Piano Sonata; Bax Piano Sonata nos. 2 and 3

Duncan Honeybourne delves into signature works by three of the genre’s most significant composers, all of which he has played at the English Music Festival in recent years

English piano music is especially rich in its potent evocations of place and atmosphere. Sometimes – as in the Bridge Sonata and the Bax Second – it tangibly burns the mist from a vivid and dramatic episode in history.  In this article I shall consider substantial works by three of the most renowned English piano composers of the early 20th century. Under the microscope are the quasi-orchestral second and third sonatas of Arnold Bax, the darkly obsessive Frank Bridge Sonata; and three of the most contrasting, yet richly idiomatic, of John Ireland’s major piano compositions.

Born in Cheshire, the son of an elderly Scottish newspaper executive and a biographer wife 30 years his junior, Ireland was to become one of the most distinctive and compelling English piano composers. Orphaned in his early teens, Ireland endured a sad and emotionally deprived childhood, studying the piano, organ and composition at the Royal College of Music but living impecuniously at the whim of severe, penny-pinching guardians. A church organist in Chelsea and Guernsey, Ireland’s most tangible creative affection was however for the piano, and his abiding attachments to places and people found their way colourfully and imaginatively into his works for the instrument. Ireland held special affection for the landscapes of the Channel Islands, Dorset and West Sussex, where he ended his days in a converted windmill close to Chanctonbury Ring.

Unlike many of his more outwardly descriptive solo piano works, the Sonatina – dedicated to BBC producer Edward Clark - lays apparent claim in its title to being a piece of purely “absolute” music. It represents a significant and decisive turning point for Ireland and is strikingly distinctive in its lean textures, abrasive intervals and terse phrase structures, the dry outlines far removed from Ireland’s more opulent and romantic scores. Philip Heseltine, the composer and critic more widely known by his sobriquet Peter Warlock, wrote to Ireland that “it is quite one of the best things you have done… is more than ever pleasing to encounter a work such as the Sonatina which, for all its very real originality and newness, is clearly the logical development of a style that was already very individual fifteen years ago, or more.”

The opening movement is incisive, laconic and droll, and obviously close in figuration and intervallic language to the Piano Concerto Ireland composed just three years later. The evocative and spare second movement takes its desolate soundworld from the eerie thirds that chime at its outset. The pianist Eric Parkin, who worked extensively with Ireland, writes that “rarely, if ever, was he to write again so disturbingly as in the second movement with its chilling pedal notes.” John Ireland drew potent inspiration both from literature and from the prehistoric and primeval, and these two strands come together in the final Rondo, into which the second movement leads without a break.A virtuosic and demonic whirl of a movement, this Finale was used as a test piece in the Daily Express Piano Competition, held in 1928 and won by the distinguished English pianist Cyril Smith (1909-1974). It is a description of the pagan sabbath in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s novel Lolly Willows (1926).Townsend Warner’s predilection for black magic and the occult was an obvious match for Ireland’s imagination, and she declared herself impressed by the movement. “This I really liked”, she commented in her diary. “It has an excitement of the wild brain, instead of the usual wild body orgy.” Townsend Warner’s eponymous heroine, Lolly Willows, is a spinster who quits her respectable London life to live in the village of Great Mop where, explains the musicologist and Ireland scholar Fiona Richards, “she makes a pact with the devil and discovers that she is a witch.” John Ireland himself wrote that “(Townsend Warner) tinges nearly all with an underlying irony which is sometimes stimulating but often destructive”, a character he picks up in this brusque, tormented movement, derived – as Richards comments – from “brittle, clipped rhythms and ostinati figures.” These push to an exultant climax and driving resolution.

My other two selected Ireland works sing gloriously and unashamedly with an openly avowed proclamation of geographical location. John Ireland’s attachment to the city of his adoption pulsates through his London Overture, with its bus-conductor cries of “Piccadilly”, and more subtly through the vibrantly-etched London Pieces for solo piano, written between 1917 and 1920. Ireland, then not quite forty, was in the middle of his tenure as Organist and Choirmaster at St Luke’s Church, Chelsea, and living in Gunter Grove between the Fulham and Kings Roads in SW10. The first piece, Chelsea Reach, evokes a stretch of the Thames favoured by Rossetti and Whistler, whilst the second – the sprightly Ragamuffin – depicts a rough young lad walking spiritedly down a London street whistling a merry ditty. The third piece, the lazy and laconic Soho Forenoons, captures a relaxed, almost decadent image of the café culture John Ireland would have associated with one of London’s most cosmopolitan districts. Witty, chic and lean-textured, this is Ireland at his most urbane.

Always susceptible to the subtle as well as overt stimuli of places and people, familiar landscapes and the resonances of times long past, Ireland found a spiritual home on the island of Guernsey. His love of that Channel isle became a defining ingredient of his artistic imagination, and it was there that he was living at the beginning of the Second World War, playing the organ and surrounded by a loyal circle of friends. Guernsey – and its tangible sense of antiquity – provided the inspiration for what I believe to be Ireland’s greatest piano work, his moving triptych Sarnia. Sarnia was the ancient Roman name for the island, and this large scale work is a masterpiece of the composer’s maturity and of the genre that might loosely be termed “English impressionism.” It is painfully tender in its intimacy and wildly ecstatic in its climactic moments. It tells eloquently of the mercurial spirit of the sea, evoking the waves lapping and crashing at Guernsey’s shores. The sensibility and colour often seem more French than English – as was often the case with John Ireland.

There is something tangibly primeval about the opening movement, Le Catioroc. The eponymous island location is the site of druidical remains: the last, wrote Ireland’s great friend John Longmire, to retain its aura of sorcery and black magic. The movement is headed by a verse by Pomponius Mela (De Situ Orbis, c.AD50):

All day long, heavy silence broods, and a certain hidden terror lurks there. But at nightfall gleams the light of fires; the chorus of AEgipans resounds on every side: the shrilling of flutes and the clash of cymbals re-echo by the waste shores of the sea.

The second movement, “In a May Morning”, is headed by some lines from Victor Hugo’s novel “Les Travailleurs de la Mer” (“The Toilers of the Sea”), which is dedicated to island of Guernsey. Ireland had followed in Hugo’s tracks by making his home in Guernsey, for the Frenchman had previously lived in exile there. The toccata-like “Song of the Springtides” – ecstatic, sensual, and surely a bit like Debussy’s La Mer – carries a quotation from the decadent poet Algernon Charles Swinburne:

Upon the flowery forefront of the year
One wandering by the grey-green April sea
……….Along the foam-flowered strand

Ireland’s contemporary Frank Bridge made his own large contribution to the library of English piano music, much of his earlier work lyrical, carefree and immaculately crafted in a lusciously late romantic idiom. But later in his career Bridge was deeply affected by the carnage of Passchendaele and the Somme, the senseless loss of so many of his friends and contemporaries, and the hollow futility of war. This presaged a significant shift in his musical mindset, exemplified most eloquently in his Oration for cello and orchestra as well as in his great Piano Sonata.  Bridge’s friend Ernest Farrar (1885-1918) - composer, conductor, promoter of enterprising concerts and teacher of the young and impressionable Gerald Finzi – died in action in September 1918, just 10 days after reaching the Western Front. Finzi’s own Requiem da camera is dedicated to Farrar, as is Bridge’s brooding Sonata, a searing tribute to a gifted colleague whose life was cut short.

This dramatic work, lasting a full half hour, must be reckoned among the towering masterpieces of English piano music. It sees Bridge turning his back on the unabashed romanticism and optimistic lyricism of his earlier works and cultivating an emotionally bleaker, harmonically more daring, colouristically darker and intellectually more searching language. Bridge was deeply affected by the carnage of the First World War and it is no coincidence that this forbidding structure, its brow furrowed and its lighter episodes nervy and cynical, is inscribed to the memory of Farrar, whose death in action burned deep into Bridge’s sensitive psyche. The work represents a highly original coalescence of English pastoralism and avant-garde angularity, the shadow of the Viennese serialists lurking behind Bridge's epigrammatic, prickly spurts of melody.  There are bracing flickers of bitonality, and the arch form structure - a familiar phenomenon in Bridge's music of this period - injects a compelling symmetry of dramatic utterance. Pianistically, the deeper philosophical conflicts are explored and expressed in gloriously virtuoso terms. Following the premiere, given by Myra Hess on 15th October 1925, one critic declared that here was a work to be “respected rather than loved.” It is certainly a piece to pack a shattering dramatic punch!

Sir Arnold Bax ranks by any definition as one of the most fascinating and paradoxical figures in English music, and his piano music among the most strikingly iconoclastic and visionary. It is orchestral in conception and elemental in expressive range, and his 2nd and 3rd sonatas are arguably among the finest and most dramatically effective of all twentieth century piano sonatas. Bax was a naturally gifted pianist with phenomenal sightreading powers and a distinctly individual sprawling fluency; this is evident from the music, which requires an elusive yet consistent feel for specific hand-shapes and chord-patterns. Initially awkward under the hand, it repays closer acquaintance with a broader sample of Bax piano writing, as one feels one’s way, as it were, into the composer’s own relationship with his instrument and his own highly personal brand of virtuosity.

Born to Surrey farming stock, Bax grew up in a prosperous Hampstead home and received a conventional upper-class education. He subsequently attained a knighthood and the Mastership of the King’s (later Queen’s) Musick, conforming in so many appearances to an apparently conventional prototype of a well-heeled English gentleman. Yet alongside this presentation of outward conformity sat wild wanderings and wilful passions of a more bohemian brand, not least his close personal links with the republican architects of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin. Bax later asserted that since his youth Eire had been his “land of heart’s desire” and his absorption of Irish culture extended to mastering the Gaelic language and living for some years in the Dublin suburb of Rathgar, in addition to making regular pilgrimages across the Irish Sea to find his spiritual peace and artistic muse. Bax’s self-devised Irish identity was as a poet, “Dermot O’Byrne”, and the republican sentiments in some of his literary output so tangibly and provocatively anti-British as to be banned by the British censors during the turbulent pre-revolutionary years. Bax’s marriage broke down early on, the split caused at least in part by his relationship with the charismatic pianist Harriet Cohen. Although Cohen was herself largely superseded in Bax’s affections by a subsequent mistress and lifelong soulmate, Mary Gleaves, Cohen long remained in ignorance of this. She continued to regard herself as having exclusive – and overtly possessive – rights to Bax’s piano music long after the composer’s death, describing it as “my private property” and taking forceful issue with other pianists who attempted to play it.

Bax’s Second Piano Sonata is indeed dedicated to Cohen, but it was the New Zealand-born pianist and composer Arthur Alexander who gave the first performance, at London’s Aeolian Hall on 24th November 1919. Following revisions, Harriet herself premiered the final version at the Queen’s Hall in June 1920. The work, cast in a single movement structure and built on a vast dynamic, expressive and emotional canvas, is undoubtedly one of the towering masterpieces of English piano music, but its genesis and inspiration lie firmly in Ireland. The piece has had some distinguished admirers: Rachmaninov is quoted as describing it as “the greatest work for piano since the Liszt sonata”, while Schnabel apparently branded it “the greatest piano work of the twentieth century.” A turbulent and dramatic work, the Sonata is masterfully tight and well-organised architecturally, and it is inevitable that structural comparisons have been drawn with the Liszt B minor Sonata. However, Bax’s work is supremely individual in harmonic language and melodic idiom, and utterly personal in the idiosyncratic character of its keyboard writing. Harriet Cohen characterised the work as “an epic conception, this time taking the form of a contest between good and evil,” and the Bax scholar Lewis Foreman describes it as “surely yet another work brooding on tragic Eire, and one of the most “Celtic” of all Bax’s works in its imagery, though not in its overt language”. Early in 1919, Bax had toured Ireland with Harriet Cohen, and Foreman observes that “in a man passionately involved with the beauties and identity of Ireland, Bax’s first visit there for years, and the impending blood-letting in that unhappy land, surely created an overwhelming impression.” Dark, febrile, menacing and visionary, the Second Piano Sonata is an intense masterpiece and the devastatingly impactful fruit of a strikingly iconoclastic and fertile artistic imagination.

Bax’s Third Piano Sonata (1926), another compelling and dramatic score, sees the composer returning to a more conventional three-movement form. Chords are highly coloured with rich harmony and astringent chromaticism, and modally-inflected Celtic sunsets break out unexpectedly and movingly from torrents of whirling, gritty energy and strident aggression. This a strongly-wrought, consummately pianistic and consistently inspired work of Bax’s maturity, successfully reconciling the composer’s distinctive pianism with his restless temperament, passionate idealism, intellectual rigour and the imaginative legacy of his Gaelic and Russian sojourns. It is also, as with so much of Bax’s piano music, symphonic in its colouristic and expressive range. The dark, restless first movement breaks out into brazen, snarling fifths and octaves, swirling arpeggio figures and demonic rhapsody before retreating into the shadows once again. The second movement offers lyrical glimpses of a faery stillness: an enchanting folk-like theme of distinctly Irish inspiration hints at repose, but a wilder wind sooner blows into the picture and whips the melodic outlines into a torrential swirl of frenzy such as few bar Bax could muster! The last movement is a churning kaleidoscope of all these elements, with a sombre and menacing darkness persisting. Bax, the virtuoso pianist, treats the piano as an orchestra and harnesses his inner passions and demons to produce one of the marvels of the English piano repertoire. The work was premiered by, Harriet Cohen, that ubiquitous muse and mistress, at a recital promoted by the Liverpool Centre of the British Music Society on 18th November 1927.

First published in Spirited, the magazine of the English Music Festival, Spring 2020