Journeys into English piano music part 2

Duncan Honeybourne explores the solo piano output of Moeran and Holst

Gustav Holst and E.J. Moeran are two British composers whose names are not immediately associated with solo piano music. The pungent individuality of Holst’s language finds impassioned expression in his searingly dramatic orchestral works and the mystical Hymn of Jesus, whilst his cultural and linguistic curiosities are brought to magical fruition in Savitri and the Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda. Moeran’s folksong collecting expeditions in Norfolk and Ireland led to some memorable vocal settings, and his growth to musical maturity occasioned some fine chamber music and magisterial orchestral writing in the G minor Symphonyand the exquisite Violin Concerto. Moreover, his late marriage to the cellist Peers Coetmore resulted in two masterpieces: the opulent Cello Concerto, and the bleak Cello Sonata of 1947.

Holst’s ambitions to become a concert pianist were thwarted by the development of neuritis in his right arm, whilst Moeran was – to judge from a first-hand account I’ve heard as well as the feel of his music under the hands – a fairly indifferent executant himself. As a pianist with a signature love of the British and Irish musical heritage, and a strong devotion to music which evokes a sense of place, both Holst and Moeran were part of my musical upbringing. As a child I was taken to Holst’s Cheltenham birthplace, and a crackly 78rpm record of The Planets counts among my treasured musical awakenings. Holst and Moeran both evoke landscapes I knew and treasured in my early family life: Egdon Heath was just up the road in my native Dorset, whilst childhood summers were invariably spent in the Welsh border country that inspired Moeran’s breezy Sinfonietta.

Yet the music of these two masters remained a listening, rather than a playing, experience. The solo piano music of neither of them had found a place in the accepted canon of keyboard literature, and its discovery required every inch of my teenage determination to divine and explore the more intriguing byways of the repertoire.

A strong influence on me was my childhood organ teacher, Andrew Richardson (1954-1994) and I am pleased to take this opportunity to remember and celebrate him, for he has a place in this story as well as in my own development. Andrew lost his life to cancer before his 40th birthday, when I was sixteen, and he was an inspired musician whose sensitivity and perception will remain with me to the end of my own musical life. I worked with him at an important stage in my musical apprenticeship, and many of his tastes and aesthetics were absorbed into my own maturing personality. Andrew gave me several dusty old volumes of music that had belonged to a pianist relative of his, and among these were Moeran’s Toccata, Three Fancies and Stalham River. I learned them for the centenary of the composer’s birth in December 1994; and when, in March the following year, I won the Iris Dyer Piano Prize at the Royal Academy of Music, I took the unusual step of including Stalham River, rather than Liszt or Chopin, in my programme alongside the customary classical sonata. The adjudicator expressed great interest in the piece, and my crusade to promote Moeran’s piano works had begun. The following year I played some of them in Norfolk, where audiences expressed special interest in “their” composer, and I broadcast Stalham River in a recital for the BBC when I was 18. It became something of a musical calling-card for me, a masterpiece of English impressionism whose very inclusion made a decisive claim for the kind of musician I wanted to be. A young pianist who made a feature of romantic British music was looked upon as a rather strange being some 25 years ago. Many of the senior figures in the musical establishment had grown to maturity in a time when Vaughan Williams, Holst and their friends were demeaned and ridiculed as “cowpat” composers. This default attitude was hard-wired into many of my older colleagues, and not infrequently was I encouraged to make less of a feature of this “inferior” repertoire. But that simply made me more determined, and history has endorsed my doggedness. The landscape of our profession looks very different a quarter of a century later, and I am proud to be a member of a new generation of artists who have – on a considerable scale - sought to explore and promote the British piano music of the early 20th century.

Ernest John Moeran, born in Osterley, Middlesex, on the last day of 1894, inherited a dual allegiance: to East Anglia, where his mother was born and where he spent most of his childhood; and to Ireland, whence his father came. The landscapes of both exerted a strong and enduring influence on his artistic personality, whilst his passionate commitment to rural dwellers fuelled extensive folksong-collecting expeditions on both sides of the Irish Sea. A sensitive, impressionable soul, with a need for solitude and a predilection for drink, Moeran published some 18 pieces for solo piano. They were written during a relatively short phase in his creative life, the earliest dating from 1919 and the last from 1933. Moeran wrote no solo piano music after achieving his fullest musical and expressive maturity, and in later life he dismissed his work in the genre as “complete tripe”, remarking: “I wish it were not published.” It is tempting to ponder what kind of piano music he might have written later, but also to wonder whether it might have been a deliberate choice to compose for other forces, rather than for an instrument Moeran might have found less than entirely satisfying. Moeran may have had misgivings over pianistic expression such as his younger East Anglian colleague, Benjamin Britten, was later to voice. “I find that it’s limited in expression”, wrote Britten, as musicianly a pianist as one is ever likely to encounter, claiming: “I don’t really like the sound of the modern piano.” This is entirely my own theory, but I find Moeran’s richly-bloomed, lyrical writing more obviously suited to sustaining instruments - the violin, cello or oboe, for instance. Orchestral colours work to his advantage, as does the human voice. The piano is essentially a lyrical instrument, which yearns to produce a singing tone and long sustained lines, but these depend entirely upon carefully deployed arm weight, a skilful approach to tonal voicing, blending and shaping, and subtle pedalling. I have never found any evidence to suggest that Moeran was a particularly good pianist, and several anecdotes have encouraged me to think that he wasn’t. His piano music lies far more awkwardly under the hand than that of his teacher John Ireland, and my own suspicion is that he got around the piano idiosyncratically and perhaps a trifle reluctantly. So the cardinal qualities of beautiful tone and lyrical flexibility might not have been as integral a part of his musical psyche as they would that of a virtuoso performer. Pianist-composers tend to think in pianistic terms, whereas non-pianists, for all they may know intellectually that the piano can be made to sing in the right hands, sometimes save their lusher lyrical intimacies for more obviously sustaining instruments. I suspect this thought process applied to some extent, consciously or unconsciously, to E.J. Moeran.

For all his own doubts about his piano music, and for all that it consists mainly of miniatures, the 18 pieces that make up the Moeran solo piano oeuvre are of high quality and strikingly characteristic of their composer in a range of moods. Taken as a whole, it may not be fully representative of the scope and range of Moeran’s work, but his piano music is richly romantic and picturesque, frequently tinged with folk song inflections and laden with imagery of the landscapes Moeran loved. Characteristically warm-hearted, it contains countless fingerprints of the mature and bigger-scale Moeran, and anyone who knows the orchestral and chamber music, and the songs, will notice an abundance of cross-references and family likenesses. Much of it could be by no-one else.

When dismissing his piano music in later life, Moeran had to admit an affection for his first published work, the first of a set of Three Piano Pieces written in 1919. The three pieces were composed in Boyle, County Roscommon, while the composer was recuperating from injuries sustained in the First World War, and they show Moeran exploring the Irish facet of his identity for the first time. The Lake Island, Moeran’s favourite, is indeed beautiful, poised, modal and slightly Ravelian, portraying in its rippling figurations a wooded island at nearby Lough Key. Its successor, Autumn Woods, is less compelling, but the closing jollity of At a Horse Fair is infectiously and unmistakably Irish, capturing the bustling atmosphere of the west-of-Ireland horse fairs, occasions Moeran loved to attend.

Most of Moeran’s finest solo piano works date from the early 1920, a time when he was finding his feet as a composer after returning to the Royal College of Music after his war service. Before leaving for the front he had studied with Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, now he was a pupil of John Ireland who later recalled that Moeran “developed an idiom much like my own”. This remark may have been meant to be generous and complimentary, but nonetheless it barely scratches the surface of a very distinctive and individual personality. Moeran’s only extended piano work is his Theme and Variations of 1920. The dark, folk-like (but nonetheless original) theme is treated to an imaginative set of variations and a virtuosic finale. The pianistic pyrotechnics are convincing and integrated, musically satisfying and dramatic without playing to the gallery. Yet the hand shapes do not feel like those of a pianist, and the writing is often more awkward to play than it sounds. For me, the lyrical writing, especially the sensuous pastoral meanderings of the heartfelt Variation 8, make the most enduring impression. Here the pianist tries to sing like an ensemble of stringed instruments, without a thought of note-spinning. Moeran isn’t specifically trying to write piano music, and the result is liquid gold.

From 1921 dates what I consider Moeran’s piano masterpiece, Stalham River. Subtitled Ballade for Piano, this is a miniature tone poem infused with the spirit of the composer’s childhood homeland. The broadland country of north-east Norfolk is a territory of large expanses of sky, lonely wetlands and a richness of marshland wildlife. All this is sensitively captured in evocative and superbly idiomatic writing, not entirely uninfluenced by John Ireland in its gently pulsating modal figurations and colourfully etched seams of melody. There is a deep vein of melancholy, expressed in a rich palette of impressionistic colours.

Other highlights from the 18 pieces include the glittering Toccata of 1924. This fine piece is a remarkable fusion of sparkling pianistic brilliance and lyrical bucolic folksiness. The central section is a haunting pastoral ditty which could easily be a folksong but is actually of Moeran’s own invention. This is framed by virtuosic outer sections which are superbly effective and rousing. The work is dedicated to the Irish pianist and composer Archy Rosenthal (1874-1947), whose own compositions I explored on my EM Records disc An Irish Idyll. The Toccata sounds much easier than it is, and the figurations, whilst musically perfectly judged, never quite lie under the hands as effortlessly as it sounds as though they might.

Also worthy of particular mention are the Two Legends of 1923, strongly wrought pieces which are fluent and mature in their construction and imaginative in the pianistic effects they deploy. The wistful Folk Story is rich in ideas, but its companion piece, Rune, is symphonic in its textural richness and dramatic utterance.

The Three Fancies of 1922 are descriptive miniatures of considerable character and vitality. If the title of the second piece, Windmills, carries a suggestion of the scenery of Moeran’s Norfolk childhood, Burlesque might owe more to the composer’s Irish blood, whilst the Elegy is a dark, introspective, tortured – and extremely fine – piece which to me evokes Moeran’s blacker moods. The rumbustious Bank Holiday, a carefree romp, betrays more than a hint of Percy Grainger and Moeran’s ribald drinking companion Peter Warlock. Moeran was impressionable, in music as in life, and the gently compound duple Summer Valley sounds just like the music of Delius, whom Moeran revered and to whom he dedicated the piece.

The Two Folksong Arrangements, completed in the late 1920s, must be mentioned. They show Moeran’s love of Irish folk song and demonstrate his skill in setting them simply and effectively. The Irish Love Song is a solo piano setting of a traditional Irish folksong associated with a poem – I grieve when I think on the dear happy days of my youth – by Michael Hogan (1828-1899), the Bard of Thomond, and published in Padraic Colum’s Anthology of Irish Verse (1922). Moeran’s placing of the beautiful melancholy tune in the middle of the piano presents a challenge of voicing to the pianist, requiring the melody to sing out with the necessary tonal lushness. The White Mountain is a touchingly effective setting of the folksong better known in Ireland as The Star of the County Down.

Dating from 1933, the tranquil, folk-inflected Prelude and Berceuse - brief, unpretentious but crafted with endearing care and refinement – bring our exploration of Moeran’s piano oeuvre to a close. Despite the subsequent deepening of his powers in the 1940s, and the appearance of such masterpieces as the Cello Sonata and the James Joyce setting Rahoon, he was never again to write for solo piano.

Gustav Holst was a very different composer. Whereas Moeran was one of a kind, an individual genius but nonetheless a confirmed nature-mystic of the post-Vaughan Williams generation, Holst was a pioneer and an iconoclast who constantly broke new ground. As an educator, too, he stood apart in his trailblazing desire to nourish, educate and stimulate the amateur musician, in his work at Morley College and elsewhere.

Holst’s small body of music for solo piano is representative of his extraordinarily athletic intellect and sophisticated imagination. Despite his early pianistic aspirations, Holst’s solo output for the instrument amounts to just a third of that of Moeran, and all these were completed during a short period in his life during the 1920s and early 30s. Unlike Moeran, Holst was fully mature – and in his fifties – when he penned his piano works, several of which are dedicated to colleagues on the staff of St Paul’s Girls School, Hammersmith, where the composer was Director of Music from 1905 until his death in 1934. Never is a note wasted or out of place, and the personality is always utterly Holst’s own.

Holst’s earliest piano piece, a Toccata, was written in 1924 and is also one of his most arresting. It is dedicated “to Adine O’Neill and her pupils.” The former Adine Berthe Maria Ruckert, wife of Holst’s fellow composer Norman O’Neill, was a pupil of Clara Schumann and a valued member of staff at St Paul’s Girls School. Holst notes that the piece is “founded on the Northumbrian Pipe-Tune Newburn Lads”, surely a nod to Holst’s friend, the Northumberland-born William Gillies Whittaker (1876-1944). Whittaker was a proud Northumbrian, founder of the Newcastle Bach Choir and later Principal of the Scottish National Academy of Music and Professor of Music at the University of Glasgow. For Holst, ever eclectic in his choice of influences and concise in his treatment of material, this sunny traditional melody offered a perfect basis for a sparkling pianistic showpiece. The jaunty tune is initially tossed between the two hands, but it gains in complexity and frenetic energy before, as pianist John York comments “it goes out of tune and breaks down like a faulty barrel-organ.” Modal spice abounds throughout, and the piece retreats into nothingness, the final dynamic marking being ppp with an instruction to die away further. The Toccata begins a sharply percussive fff in single notes, there is a big crescendo to a climax and a glissando for good measure, before an una corda marking instructs the pianist to select a thinner, quieter timbre. Needing brilliant fingerwork and not too much pedal, the piece is devastatingly original and unexpected from first note to last.

Also showing a debt to Whittaker’s friendship are the Two Northumbrian Folk Tunes, completed in 1926 and dedicated to the pianist and teacher Nora Day. Day was another pianist colleague of Holst’s at St Paul’s Girls School, and played a big part in bringing his orchestral work The Planets to fruition. Always fascinated by folk music and folk song, Holst weaves these sublime piano minatures around two “North Countrie Ballads”, the first reflective in character and the second sparklingly playful, making a bracing brush with bitonality.

Chrissemas Day in the Morning was composed in 1926 and again quotes a familiar folk melody, this time a Christmas carol! It is quoted in the left hand, against bracing and unexpected harmonic shifts, clangorous brilliance and deftly placed moments of mysterious expectation and repose. It is dedicated to Vally Lasker, a German-born pianist colleague at St Paul’s.

Holst’s remarkable Nocturne, composed in 1930, is in my opinion his finest piano work. Original and highly progressive, it creates a compelling atmosphere through its gently rocking chordal figurations, spiced with modal harmonies and atonal touches. The overriding character is tranquil, but there are explosive and dramatic moments. Holst’s use of the piano is highly effective, his tonal and textural canvas deeply original. The Nocturne is one of two solo piano works dedicated to the composer’s daughter, Imogen, then in her early twenties. The other is the astringent Jig, Holst’s last piano piece - and indeed one of his very last works - completed in 1932, just two years before his death, and economically crafted with the mature hand of a man who knows what exactly what he wants to say, and how he has elected to say it. The very next year E.J. Moeran, two decades Holst’s junior, made his own final foray into solo piano writing, but he was to live for another seventeen years.

For a pianist of my own sympathies and tastes, the solo piano literature of these two well-loved and familiar composers is irresistible and priceless. Not only does it tell us a lot about the ways its respective composers thought and worked, rather like perusing sketches from a watercolourist’s notebook, but it is deeply satisfying and rewarding in itself. Attractive, characteristic and communicative, the piano music of Holst and Moeran deserves to maintain a modest yet significant place in the repertoire, and in our awareness of our artistic heritage.

First published in Spirited, the magazine of the English Music Festival, Spring 2021