S&H Concert Review

Frederick CLIFFE Symphony No 1 in C minor Lambeth Orchestra/ Christopher Fifield St Luke's Church, West Norwood, London SE27 16 December 2000.

English Bruckner? English Mahler?

The British composer Frederick Cliffe's First Symphony of 1889, revived after 83 years' silence, proved to be even more of a discovery than Cliffe's most optimistic champions had been expecting: a really large-scale, distinctive, late Victorian symphony - notable for its sure wide-spanning architecture, for its virile invention and command of the orchestra, for its varied mix of then contemporary influences, for its drama and lyricism and sheer impact.

On 22 April 1889, The Daily Telegraph published the following remarkable review of what was then an unknown composer's first symphony:

'It may be doubted whether musical history can show on any of its pages the record of such an Opus 1. The symphony is a masterpiece, and the composer, one might think, feels terrified at his own success. For our own part, noting the imaginative power displayed in the work, the easy command of all resources, the beauty and freshness of the themes, and their brilliant development, we feel inclined to ask a question, propounded concerning another phenomenon "Whence has this man these things?" Mr Cliffe has by one effort passed from obscurity to fame, and must be regarded as a bright and shining star on the horizon of our English art'

That first performance of Frederick Cliffe's Symphony in C minor was at Crystal Palace, just a couple of stones throws from where it has now been revived over 111 years later. As far as can be determined it has not been performed since November 1917, yet on the evidence of this truly pioneering revival by Fifield and the Lambeth Orchestra it is difficult to understand why, for everything that Victorian critic wrote was surely born out by our later experience of the music in performance. Even if one is constantly playing 'spot the influence' as it proceeds, from a Millennium perspective this is surely a score that has, at last, found its time.

This symphony, which is totally unknown and no longer acknowledged by its publisher, places Cliffe as a potentially big player, indeed to loom large in any future account of musical achievement in the last decade of Victoria's reign. Yet hearing it raises more questions than it answers, for surely so commanding a grasp of the orchestra, with such a confident technique, abreast of the leading styles of his period, could not be by a composer finding his first expression in an orchestral work. And why did he teach piano rather than composition at the RCM?

Inevitably one discusses this work in terms of the idioms of other composers of the period reflected in it. The debt to Dvorak, and indeed at one point in the scherzo to Smetana, is far less evident than I had supposed from an examination of the score. What is so striking in performance is the wide-spanning architecture given expression through glorious melodic lines whose chromatic twists are almost Mahlerian in their emotional intensity. The grandly building brass chorales of the slow movement are surely impossible without Bruckner, as indeed are many of the sweeping build-ups in the strings in this imposing score - yet where could one have experienced Bruckner's symphonies working in the north of England, as Cliffe did, in the 1880s? Cliffe is fascinating for his integration of so wide a stylistic palette: Mendelssohn, even Schubert in places, the Schumann of the Rhenish Symphony is also not far away, and in the finale a thistledown fugato brings to mind Berlioz and Queen Mab.

Yet the over-riding influence is Wagner, which is not to say the music is continually "Wagnerian". The repeated hammer blows of the first movement come all too clearly from Siegfried's Funeral March in Götterdammerung; even Alberich puts in a passing appearance, albeit in a dinner jacket. Tannhäuser, Flying Dutchman and Tristan have all provided inspiration at the right moments. Yet, Cliffe played in the first performance of Sullivan's The Golden Legend at Leeds in 1886, and on this evidence one often feels his admiration of Wagner is one, Sullivan-like, refracted through a deeper knowledge of Mendelssohn. One mentions all these familiar names in trying to give those who were not in the hall an appreciation of the idiom. Yet what we were hearing was a quite individual composer with a striking command of the orchestra and an idiom fully of its time. In the last analysis I suspect in the longer-term we will think of this as Cliffe.

It is interesting to compare Cliffe, and his career, with his contemporaries. He was born exactly a month before Elgar, and to a not dissimilar family circumstance. Cliffe was born in Bradford, five years before Delius was born there. Cliffe remained in England and developed his music through performance, Delius was no performer and followed his dream overseas. Cliffe is thus directly comparable to the two great British composers from the turn of the century and it is fascinating to see what social determinants and influences gave Cliffe his short-term success and long-term oblivion. Without Lady Elgar would Elgar have ended giving up as Cliffe seems to have done? Or was Elgar saved by his antagonism to academicism? By the time Delius and Elgar had come into their artistic maturity in the Edwardian period, Cliffe's work as a composer was on the wane, and he was certainly the champion of an idiom that was increasingly seen as passé.

Cliffe's music for all practical purposes comes down to us as only six works - two symphonies (1889, pub 1903; 1892 unpublished); a Violin Concerto (Norwich Festival, 1896); a tone poem Cloud and Sunshine (Philharmonic Society 1890); a Stanford-esque choral ballad Ode to the North-East Wind (Novello, 1906) and a scena for contralto and orchestra The Triumph of Alcestis (Boosey, 1902). With that enormous change of style and aesthetic which launched the twentieth century, as expressed in the orchestral virtuosity of Elgar and the impressionism of Vaughan Williams, Holst, Frank Bridge, Bax, John Ireland and the rest, doubtless Cliffe was one of the smaller talents of late Victorian England to fall by the wayside, his short-lived success forgotten as his pupils inherited a musical world that did not warm to Bruckner and Mahler. However now, over a century later, it is time to revisit this whole repertoire, when many worthwhile works are still to be rediscovered.

The Cliffe symphony really needs a top line orchestra, but the Lambeth Orchestra - now in its 28th pioneering season - put their hearts into it and gave a remarkably effective and idiomatic rending, with notably well-focussed strings, Christopher Fifield shaping and pacing Cliffe's wide-spanning fabric with an idiomatic sympathy for its architecture and drama.

In the first half we had a warmly atmospheric account of Delius's A Song Before Sunrise and the young violinist Roy Theaker, the winner of the 1999 Incorporated Society of Musicians International Violin Competition (and, incidentally, the assistant conductor in the West End production The Lion King) gave another recent Victorian revival, with a strongly communicating performance of Stanford's Violin Concerto of 1899, the soloist's placing almost among the audience underlining the communication of his playing in the reverberant acoustic of St Luke's Church.

Das Land ohne Musik? - don't you believe it!

Lewis Foreman

See also FREDERIC CLIFFE: BRITISH SYMPHONIST by Jürgen Schaarwächter

Seen&Heard is part of Music on the Web(UK) Webmaster: Len Mullenger Len@musicweb-international.com

Return to: Seen&Heard Index  

Return to: Music on the Web