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The Music of E. J. Moeran

The Music Of E. J. Moeran

The opening bars of Ernest John Moeran’s Symphony in  G-Minor (completed in 1937) etched themselves in my memory when I first heard them in the early 1970s in Neville Dilke’s 1970 EMI recording with the English Sinfonia – and they have haunted me ever since.  Over a four-four ostinato based in the horns, the violins play a sweeping, folksong-like melody with a character both heroic and tragic; it is a melody strongly vocal in its outline, but full of developmental implication, which the composer ingeniously exploits.  According to Geoffrey Self’s 1986 study of Moeran (1894 – 1950), work on the Symphony began as early as 1924, but its author it aside for a decade before resuming it.  Moeran worked initially on what would become the Symphony’s slow movement, deriving his motifs, as Self informs his readers, from a traditional Norfolk melody, The Shooting of his Dear, which he had arranged previously for chorus.  Self argues that The Shooting of his Dear appealed to Moeran more due to the pathos of its lyrics than to its inherent melodiousness.  The song tells the story of a young fowler who accidentally kills his beloved while out hunting and how her ghost appears at his trial to plead clemency.  The murder of the innocent, as Self sees it, figured centrally in Moeran’s conscience, as he had served in the British Army in the Great War, in which he had been severely wounded.  Moeran’s symphony thus began with the folksong, on the basis of which the slow movement builds an elegiac fantasia; and when Moeran took up the score again a nucleus of motifs derived from the same Norfolk tune informed the thematic material of the other movements, including the sweeping theme at the commencement of the first movement’s Allegro.  In Self’s analysis, the Symphony in G-Minor constitutes itself as a subtly and ingeniously worked out musical unity, as complex in its construction as any other major musical work of the mid-Twentieth Century.

No doubt but the derivation of the score’s thematic material from a few basic melodic cells conveys itself unconsciously to the lay listener.  The main laical reaction to Moeran’s score, however, consists in feeling oneself overwhelmed by the work’s lyrical richness and its constant implication of carrying forward a musical narrative endowed with a powerful meaning.  Self points out that the Symphony in G-Minor partakes in complexity and meaning in another way – through its pattern of allusions to other symphonic scores.  He names Jean Sibelius, and in particular his Second, Third, and Fourth Symphonies as generating echoes in Moeran’s partitur; and Peter Tchaikovsky’s Sixth and Sir Edward Elgar’s Second Symphony and his tone-poem Falstaff.  Self poses a rhetorical question: “What if [Moeran’s] music were to work by using our knowledge of other, specific works, and ones which are accepted loci classici for particular emotional gestures?”  Self believes that Moeran often consciously made musical allusions so that musically astute listeners “would take account not only of the Moeran passage, but also of its model.”  In this way “the total listening experience would be compounded of Moeran heard in light of the model – on occasion, indeed, the Moeran [passage] might make ironic comment on the model.”  Elsewhere in his book, Self gives evidence that Moeran extended this practice to the large-scale works that succeeded the Symphony, and in so doing aligned himself with the mid-century convention of literary allusion, as in the novels of James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence or the poetry of T. S. Eliot.

Bracketing Self’s speculation about a conscious technique of allusion, the Symphony in G-Minor shares kinship with and closely resembles several other British symphonies of the 1930s, not least William Walton’s Symphony in B-Minor (No. 1 – completed in 1935) and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony in F-Minor (No. 4 – also completed in 1935).  Both Walton’s symphony and Moeran’s give evidence of the powerful influence on them of the symphonies and symphonic poems of Sibelius.  Walton and Moeran make use, for example, of sustained pedal points in the bass to control the harmonic progression in their musical paragraphs, a characteristic gesture of Sibelius’ compositions; and their writing for the woodwinds often echoes that of Sibelius.  As does Vaughan Williams in his Symphony in F-Minor, Moeran in his G-Minor counterpart-score occasionally relieves the otherwise ubiquitous tension by retreating into the musical language English pastoralism, which Vaughan Williams practically invented.  The retreat, however, is only ever temporary.  Tragedy always reasserts itself.  These mid-1930s symphonies of Moeran, Walton, and Vaughan Williams express, through their rhythmic nervousness and their dissonant climaxes, a type of prophetic anxiety that commentators attribute to the looming possibility, soon to be a tragic patency, of war.  The brilliant film-score that Arthur Bliss contributed to the H. G. Wells – Alexander Korda film Things to Come, once again in 1935, responds to the same fearful intuition, while the film itself predicts the sudden renewal of conflict among the nations – a Second World War that destroys civilization.

The Symphony in G-Minor, in its completed form, furnishes the mid-point in Moeran’s musical authorship.  The works that come before the G-Minor have something about them of the character of apprenticeship, while those that follow give evidence of a journeyman composer fully in control of his art and capable of exercising it on a large scale – although none of the subsequent compositions matches the G-Minor in scale.  Moeran’s oeuvre restricts itself to a few genres, in chamber music mainly to the string quartet and string trio; and in orchestral music to short programmatic scores, to works of symphonic structure, and to the concerto.  In the first half of Moeran’s creativity, beginning in the early 1920s after his graduation from the Royal College of Music, where he studied under Charles Villiers Stanford, small-scale orchestral scores dominate.  Moeran’s catalogue of the 1920s and early 30s boasts a “Symphonic Impression” In the Mountain Country (1921), two orchestral “Rhapsodies” (No. 1 1922 and No. 2 1924), and the “Two Pieces for Small Orchestra” (1931) – Lonely Waters  and Whythorn’s Shadow.  In the second half of Moeran’s creativity, compositions on a larger scale dominate.  In addition to the aforementioned concertos –a Violin Concerto (1942), a Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra (1943), and a Cello Concerto (1945) – Moeran left to posterity a Nocturne for Baritone Chorus and Orchestra (1934), a Sinfonietta (1944), so-called, which anyone else would have described as a symphony, a symphonic Serenade (1948), extensive sketches for a Symphony in E-Flat, and an epic Sonata for Cello and Piano in A-Minor (1947).  There is also a good deal of piano music and a handful of chamber works on either side of the creative divide.  It will be evident that Moeran was not a prolific composer.  He struggled with just about everything that he wrote.

In the Mountain Country is atmospheric, but it is too brief and too melodically low-profile to lodge itself in the listener’s musical memory.  The two “Rhapsodies” possess greater character than the earlier “Impression.”  The Rhapsody No. 1, in F-Major, begins with a rhythmically loose polyphony in the woodwinds, based on a three-note motif, which recurs many times and might be regarded as the primary melodic basis of the whole composition; musings by a solo horn complicate the texture, in which there is considerable mystery.  About a minute in, Moeran introduces a contrasting brash march-tune, but after a few bars the music returns to its original, meditative state.  The sequence of alternating moods, now brash and major-key, based on the march-tune, now quiet and minor-key, based on the opening woodwind meditation, keeps the music moving.  Rhapsody No. 1 has a relation to works by Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst that preceded it – the former’s Norfolk Rhapsodies (1906, 1912, and 1920) and the latter’s Somerset Rhapsody (1906)but whereas RVW and Holst use actual folk melodies, Moeran deploys original motifs that sound like folk melodies.  Nevertheless, Moeran took inspiration from the same Norfolk landscapes as did RVW.  Self describes the Rhapsody No. 2 as being in rondo form.  Self also rates Rhapsody No. 2 below Rhapsody No. 1.  Rondo or no – the music unfolds as a continuous movement of plastic variations on a jaunty tune, quite folk-like, given at the outset by the bassoon.  As in the case of Rhapsody No. 1, Rhapsody No. 2 grows from the topography that Moeran loved – Norfolk in England and County Kerry in Ireland.  Self sees Brigg Fair (1907) by Frederick Delius as Moeran’s model.  Moeran admired Delius, but the music hews more closely to that of RVW or Holst than to that of Delius.

Although deeply attached to the landscapes of Norfolk and County Kerry, Moeran lived a vagabond life.  The closest he ever came to domiciling himself was in the second half of the 1920s when he went to share a house at Eynsford in the Kent countryside with fellow composer Philip Heseltine, also known as Peter Warlock.  Heseltine, however, led a Bohemian life, anarchic and hedonistic, which affected Moeran badly.  Tony Britten’s film Some Little Joy (2005) focuses on Heseltine, but Moeran figures as a character in the story, his role played by actor Richard Dempsey.  The actor has not many lines in the script; he hovers shyly in the background, but is occasionally seen riding his motorcycle with sidecar on the back roads.  (Moeran had been a dispatch rider while in uniform with the Bedfordshire Regiment.)  Britten’s direction and Dempsey’s performance accurately represent Moeran, who probably never recovered from the shock, both physical and mental, of his war years.  Warlock encouraged Moeran to drink, instigating the alcoholism that compounded the war damage.  By the end of his Eynsford sojourn, Moeran had stopped composing.  Shortly after the breakup of the Eynsford group in 1930, Heseltine committed suicide.  Moeran had meanwhile resumed his itinerant and more or less solitary way of life, but having delivered himself from what can only be called Heseltine’s malign influence he slowly recovered his creative impulse.

The “Two Pieces for Small Orchestra,” published in 1931, signal the phase of recovery.  Published together, the two items of the set nevertheless have different origins.  Lonely Waters bases itself on an actual folksong whereas Whythorn’s Shadow creates a fantasia on an Elizabethan madrigal.  Moeran, an inveterate collector of folksongs, had previously set “Lonely Waters” for tenor with piano accompaniment.  Self writes that the composer attempted an orchestral score based on the song as early as 1924, but either lost the manuscript or regarded the challenge as beyond him at the time.  The orchestral score offers alternate endings, one with the cor anglais adumbrating, but not exactly quoting, the tune, and the other giving the tune to an actual voice.  Moeran preferred the second of the two alternatives.  “It should be understood,” he wrote, “that the singer need not be a professional one, in fact anybody with a clear and natural manner of singing may sing the verse.”  Moeran dedicated the score to Vaughan Williams whose Pastoral Symphony (1923) introduces a solo voice in the final movement.  Lonely Waters plays quietly throughout; it flows like the meandering beck that its words invoke.  “So I’ll go down to some lonely waters,” the verse reads; “Go down where no-one they shall me find. / Where pretty little small birds do change their voices, / And every moment blow blustering wild.”  Whythorn’s Shadow resembles the faux Elizabethan music that Heseltine produced from time to time, such as his Capriol Suite (1926).  It contrasts its dancelike rhythmic liveliness with the cool quiescence of Lonely Waters.  Of the two pieces, Whythorn’s Shadow is an altogether new composition rather than a revision of an old one.

The death of Delius in 1934 spurred Moeran to compose – as it were, in memoriam – his Nocturne to verses by Robert Nichols, his only work involving a vocal soloist with chorus and orchestra.  Like Lonely Waters, the Nocturne remains quiet almost throughout.  Moeran delays the entrance of the solo voice (baritone), but employs the chorus wordlessly not too long into the fourteen-minute duration of the score.  Delius himself had employed choral recitative as a way of broadening the instrumental palette in such works as Appalachia (1902) and Song of the High Hills (1911).  By this device, then, Moeran pays homage to Delius, whose music he loved.  As to Moeran’s music – it is not very Delian, as Vaughan Williams observed at the time of its premiere in 1935, a judgment that Self endorses.  The characteristic Moeran gestures permeate the score: The improvisatory-sounding polyphonic inter-weavings in the woodwinds; the occasional horn solo; and the overall modality of the melodic shapes.  Self refers to the “ravishing beauty” of the score and to its “subtle, grave colouring.”  In the final lines of Nichols’ poem, a white crane takes flight.  The words and the music merge into a sublime unity.  “Moeran, too,” Self writes, had now found wings”; and “the exercise of them in the years remaining would enable him at least to touch greatness.”  Frank Howes, writing in The English Musical Renaissance (1966), differs slightly from Self in his judgment of the piece: “The influence of Delius [on Moeran’s creativity] is… pervasive; Nocturne… is dedicated to his memory and is meditative in his rich, brooding, over-ripe way.  Only in Moeran there is nothing over-ripe.”

The next major work, the Symphony, followed the Nocturne.  Howes’ comments on the G-Minor score contrast with those of Peter Pirie – writing in his book, The English Musical Renaissance (1976).  From Howes’ perspective, Moeran had produced “a thoughtful rather than a dramatic symphony, full of ideas which repay acquaintance as he develops them; they are not by any means recondite – melodiousness here as elsewhere is a characteristic of material which while perfectly apt to the instrumental medium has its origin in English melody – but they have meaning below the surface.”  Pirie, on the other hand, judges that “its faults are formal looseness and a domestic emotional atmosphere…  But its endearing nature and a certain inventiveness have outlived its faults and it is still alive today.”  One might take issue with both writers.  The Symphony in G-Minor would definitely qualify as a thoughtful work, insofar as the term thoughtful means rigorously through-composed so that the sequence of moods in the four movements adds up to a musical-emotional narrative of noteworthy stature, with the details perfectly subordinated to the whole.  It is therefore difficult to assent to Pirie’s remark about “formal looseness.”

Take the slow second movement, marked Lento.  This is the movement with which, in Self’s argument, Moeran began composition of the Symphony back in 1924.  The Lento commences grimly and turns darker.  The sense of wrenching emotional experience connected with a particular landscape impresses the auditor strongly.  Indeed, in the program note that Moeran provided for the work’s premiere, he remarks that “the material of the second movement was conceived around the sand-dunes and marshes of East Norfolk.”  The movement relates itself to the preceding first-movement Allegro by borrowing from it its lyrical second subject, but whereas in the Allegro, that melody relieves the urgency of the first subject, forming an episode of relaxation, in the Lento its appearance coincides with an increase in tension and anxiety.  Self writes: “My belief is that the Symphony in G Minor is some kind of Requiem or In Memoriam.”  Nevertheless, “this hypothesis can hardly be proved”; and “neither is it possible to say with any certainty whether it is a requiem for a person, a generation or an ideal.”  Comparing the G-Minor again with RVW’s Fourth and Walton’s First – repeated auditions of all three might well leave one with the impression that Moeran’s exceeds the other two, as impressive as they are, in musical and emotional complexity and in its invocation of a narrative.  In Self’s opinion, “the significance of Moeran’s war experience has not been accorded nearly enough weight in such comment on his work which has so far appeared in print.”  The G-Minor has been blessed by several recordings over the years, the first one from 1942, with the Halle Orchestra under Leslie Heward.  Adrian Boult recorded for the enterprising Lyrita label in the late 1960s.  More recently, in 2010, Vassily Sinasiky performed it with the BBC Symphony, giving it an exceptional reading.

The Violin Concerto in B-Minor falls into three movements (Allegro Moderato VivaceLento) and saw its completion five years after the Symphony.  This work possesses a distinctively Irish character.  Moeran composed it largely at Kenmare in County Kerry.  Whereas dark clouds hover over the landscape in the Symphony, sunny weather presides over that of the Concerto, where also the human prevails over the elemental.  The Concerto, however, shares with the Symphony the quality of formal complexity.  Self finds, for example, a pattern of musical allusion in it similar to that in the Symphony, specifically to the violin concertos of Delius, Elgar, and Sir Arnold Bax.   Often the listener will suspect that Moeran is quoting actual Irish tunes, but the motifs and themes belong to the composer.  The central Vivace serves in effect as a scherzo.  Self traces its open-air liveliness to Moeran’s appreciation of the springtime fairs and carnivals of the towns and villages in Southwestern Ireland.  All three movements succeed in sounding spontaneous improvisatory.  A slighter work than the Violin Concerto, the Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra in F-Sharp consists in a single movement of about seventeen minutes duration subdivided into sections on the fast-slow-fast design.  Like the Violin Concerto, the Rhapsody is mainly sunny and lively in disposition; it has been described as a waltz-fantasy for keyboard and orchestra.  Its melodies stay in the memory.

Moeran produced another orchestral work on a fairly large scale in 1944, endowing it modestly with the diminutive title of Sinfonietta.  This Puckish work belies its name, requiring about a half an hour for performance.  Of Moeran’s national Irish-English duality, the Sinfonietta expresses the English aspect, placing its listeners imaginatively in the Norfolk countryside.  A number of commentators describe the Sinfonietta as “neo-classical.”  The lighter scoring in comparison to the Symphony in G-Minor might contribute to the characterization.  The Sinfonietta nevertheless places itself in the English pastoral genre, especially in the second of its three substantial movements – a Theme & Variations with a programmatic underpinning.  Moeran once told Lionel Hill that the variations drew their spirit from sights along a favorite walking trail in Herefordshire, where he lived at the time.  “He said that the tempo of the theme should be taken at a fast walking pace,” Hill writes in a note to the Chandos recording of the work with the Bournemouth Orchestra under Vernon Handley.  The opening Allegro, with its bustling string figurations and lyrical second subject, and the closing Allegro Risoluto, with its brilliant fanfares, are rather more rhythmically emphatic than in Moeran’s other works.  As in many of Franz Josef Haydn’s symphonies – and Moeran admired Haydn greatly – the final movement includes a fast fugato passage.  It is worth noting that Moeran’s wartime works of the 1940s are generally bright.  The war obtrudes nowhere in either the Violin Concerto or the Sinfonietta.

In the late 1940s Moeran met and became enamored of the cellist Peers Coetmore (1905 – 1976).  He married her in 1945, the year in which he completed the concerto that he had written for her.   The somber first movement – designated Moderato – works out the implications of two or three closely related ideas all of them elegiac in character and couched in minor keys.  The occasional agitated episodes raise the tension without much relieving the general somberness.  Irish rhythms make an appearance, but without creating the jollity that they bring to life in the Violin Concerto.  To some degree, this opening movement resembles that of the Symphony in G-Minor.  Indeed Moeran seems to refer back to the Symphony in the grim fanfare that rears its head about two thirds of the way through.  The opening bars of the Adagio echo the dark atmospherics of the Fourth Symphony by Sibelius.  The cello meditates on a melancholy and dirge-like Irish tune.  The concluding Allegretto Deciso Alla Marcia at last brings a change of mood.  The rhythms are more jig-like than march-like.  The music dances.  Self writes that “Moeran considered anything permissible in a rondo episode.”  He especially liked “to introduce in the most insignificant way an idea to wax more important later.”  Self points out that the Cello Concerto is as thematically unified as the other large-scale works.  The Cello Sonata followed immediately.  It belongs to the same topography as the Cello Concerto.

In the lustrum after the two large-scale, end-of-the-war works, Moeran managed to create a chamber piece, the Fantasy Quartet (1946) for oboe, violin, viola, and cello, and his last completed orchestral work, the Serenade (1948), a six-movement pastiche of Elizabethan dance music.  During this same period, Moeran worked on sketches for a Second Symphony in E-Flat, but his worsening alcoholism, driven by his wife’s long absences during her concert tours, prevented its completion.  Enough material existed, however, to permit composer Martin Yates to realize the composition, which he did in 2011.  Yates, through his reconstruction, revealed a work that is mood-wise the polar opposite of the Symphony in G-Minor.  Who knows what would have become of it had Moeran lived.  As Howes writes, “His work came to a sudden full-stop – he was found dead in the River Kenmare at the age of fifty-six – and he found no later advocate for what is in essence a countryman’s music.”  Howes was writing in 1966.  Since then Moeran has gathered numerous advocates and most of his oeuvre has found its way, if not again into the concert hall, prolifically into the archives of recorded music.  The Symphony in G-Minor, for example, has been recorded a half a dozen times.  Moeran’s music is extraordinarily humane.  He speaks to the person – and his gift for melody will strike to lover of beauty as inexhaustibly rewarding.

Thomas BertonneauThomas Bertonneau

Thomas Bertonneau

Thomas F. Bertonneau is an intellectual and professor and has been a member of the English Faculty at SUNY Oswego since 2001. His articles and essays have appeared in a diverse array of scholarly journals, including William Carlos Williams Review, Wallace Stevens Journal, Studies in American Jewish Literature, North Dakota Quarterly, Michigan Academician, Paroles Gelées: UCLA French Studies, and Profils Americains.

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