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William WALLACE (1860 - 1940) Sir William Wallace, Villon, The Passing of Beatrice, Sister Helen   BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins. HYPERION CDA66848 [72.16]

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The recording of late Victorian/Edwardian music by Scottish composers continues. Chandos and Hyperion have given us valuable insights into the work of McEwen, Mackenzie and MacCunn now Hyperion give us four symphonic poems by the little-known composer Dr William Wallace.

William Wallace was a remarkable man - a classical scholar (and a Hebrew scholar), a doctor and an eye surgeon. He was also a poet, dramatist, and painter as well as a writer on music and musicians, in addition to being a composer. In his later years, he became a Professor of Harmony at the Royal Academy of Music when his fellow Scot and composer, John McEwen, was Principal.

Wallace wrote six symphonic poems; the two not included here are the second, Amboss Oder Hammer based on Goethe, and the fourth, Greeting to the New Century. Closely associated with these is the Prelude to The Eumenides. It seems unlikely that the second Hammer symphonic poem, not heard since World War II, will be recorded because the score is lost. Perhaps it is tucked away in the house of some conductor? John Purser, who has written the very full notes for this new Hyperion recording, lists other Wallace works of note: The two symphonies including the fine Creation Symphony and the choral symphony, Koheleth based on Ecclesiastes, the lovely Pelléas et Mélisande Suite, the bitingly satirical choral ballad, The Massacre of the Macphersons and The Divine Surrender, another large-scale choral work based on the mystery play by Elliot Stock plus the four orchestral suites including the Scotts Fantasy, The Lady from the Sea and the Suite in A.

Neville Cardus, in 1964, described Wallace as a composer who was one of the first in the progressive movement of seventy years ago. Indeed Wallace and Bantock (incidentally, the son of a Scottish-based surgeon) were amongst a small group of rebels who challenged the conservatism of the music schools of the time. Shaw described Wallace as "a young Scotch composer with a very tender and sympathetic talent" but suggested that his The Passing of Beatrice should be cut down by nine-tenths. This was a typical Shavian over-statement but it has to be said that some of the music might have benefited from a little judicious editing and some more memorable themes. But there are many strengths: exciting and stirring passages, fine atmospheric and dramatic writing and colourful orchestration. Influences of Liszt and Wagner are evident.

As usual, in this series, Brabbins and the BBC Scottish Orchestra play the music of their fellow countryman with great zest and commitment.

All four symphonic poems are based on highly dramatic subjects. The Passing of Beatrice is based on Dante and takes us from Purgatory to Paradise where Beatrice is taken up into a white rose made up of the souls of the blessed. The music, reminiscent of Parsifal and Lohengrin, is intensely romantic and reverential. Sister Helen, Wallace's third symphonic poem, reveals the opposite side of love. This is high melodrama based on a poem by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Helen, insane with jealousy and frustrated love, murders her lover by sorcery (she slowly burns a wax effigy of him causing him to writhe in agony and eventually expire). The music gives a rounded view of Helen including a warmer, side reminding us of her former feelings before she was slighted, as well as the more hair-raising aspects of the tragedy. Sir William Wallace (the fifth symphonic poem) is clearly about the composer's namesake, the Scottish hero and freedom fighter who was betrayed by his fellow-countrymen and beheaded and dismembered by the English. There is all the excitement of the battles as well as more nostalgic yearning for the highlander's homes. The influence of Elgar in nobilmente mood is apparent. Villon, Symphonic Poem No 6 is the most successful of the set. It is based on the exploits of François Villon the French rebel poet, murderer, drunkard and whore-monger - a loveable rogue. One is drawn to comparing the piece with Elgar's Falstaff - the subject and treatment are not too dissimilar. Of course, the Elgar opus is superior but Wallace's work is no mean achievement. All the riotous behaviour, mischievous irony and pathos of Villon is cleverly and subtly conveyed. An invaluable collection for lovers of late romantic music.


Ian Lace

And another view from Vincent Budd

Like MacCunn, Wallace (1860-1940) was a son of Greenock and as with almost all of the composers of the time was from a privileged background. But, despite being born with the silver knife and fork on his plate (which can sometimes mask unwarranted artistic indulgence), he was clearly a genuinely gifted individual; a bit of an all round clever Richard in fact: trained as a doctor specialising in ophthahmology, he also dabbled in Classical Scholarship, wrote poetry and drama, and painted, and to boot served in the Royal Army Medical Corp during the First World War.

In the end, however, it was music that came to take precedence in his life both as a composer and a writer. He studied under Mackenzie at RAM, becoming friends with his fellow, younger student and, to my mind, the most outstanding composer of that generation, Granville Bantock. He was obviously a man whose bonnet could buzz with some restive bees as Bantock's letters reveal how he was apt to throw china round the kitchen in the heat of an argument; though the younger man admired and did much to promote his music.

Wallace eschewed his own country, preferring to live in London for the sake of his career: yet, as with his re-domiciled Professor, Wallace's compositions are almost totally forgotten today, and this is a genuinely enterprising restoration-act by Hyperion. Indeed the sleeve claims the first ever commercial recording of any of Wallace's works. Listening to this CD the stature of Wallace's music becomes immediately evident and it is a wonder how such obviously exhilarating and rapturous music could have so easily fallen into neglect: finely constructed, filled with charmed orchestral writing, it reveals a sincere and affecting musical personality.

George Bernard Shaw once rightly observed that Wallace had 'a very tender and sympathetic talent', but typically also advised that Beatrice be cut by nine-tenths. Shaw could be as inanely flippant as he was clever, and was often more intent on being amusingly droll than showing a necessary critical empathy with the subjects of his acute wit. Wallace's music is undoubtedly of its time (an often lazy critical artifice - so of course was Bach's, Mozart's, and Beethoven's), and oozing the still less than fashionable effusive romantic musical rhetoric of late-Victorian and Edwardian British music.

More hard-bitten commentators will clearly discern a certain diffuse quality in Wallace's work again this was part of the very charm of the music of the period. (It is perhaps worthwhile noting that both Bantock and Wallace were considered 'difficult' in their own time - too radical for one age, soon too conservative for another - and that furthermore many of the decidedly 'unromantic', say Schoenberg-influenced, composers who came for a period to dominate British music are now also all but forgotten.) Shaw's remark is just plain tommyrot.

The Passing of Beatrice is an inspired work, moving and evocative throughout, with an exquisite orchestral touch and deserves to be a standard part of the repertoire of British rnusic.

Sir William Wallace was written to rnark the 600th anniversaIy of the death of the 'Scottish hero and freedom-fighter; beheaded and dismembered by the English'. It has a tender lento opening before becoming more dramatically involved in its subject with the sustained tension of that evocative orchestral exposition so associated with the 'romantic' idiom, including some exquisitely pleasing moments. Scots wha' hae provides thematic material, but, in an unusual structural tum-about, is not fully stated until the finale. It is a fine and affecting piece which repays a concentrated ear.

Villon, the last of these four symphonic poems, published in 1910, is a marvellous evocation of the French 'rebel-poet' and perhaps the most immediately satisfying of the four symphonic poems with some memorably fertile scoring. After a marvellous opening and clever employment of the bassoon, the music unfolds into a gripping and ever-changing piece, with light touches and elegiac tempers, contrasting with passages of sensuous exhilaration, at times rising to climaxes of telling intoxication. It is one of the highlights of the whole series.

The final piece, Sister Helen, inspired by Dante Gabriel Rossetti's poem, equally reveals the abiding stature of the composer and another forcibly fervid musical characterisation.

Whilst the neglect of the music of MacCunn, Mackenzie, and Wallace is not unduly beyond the unfathomable, and hardly as unjustifiable as in the case of say Granville Bantock, it is a joy at last to hear this forgotten but more than worthy music played with such enthused commitment. It is abidingly picturesque, passionate, warmhearted, and unpretentious. Yet, though these were evidently characteristically Scottish spirits at work, they were unable to achieve an overwhelmingly distinctive national focus in their music. For all the intrinsic and satisfying musicality, the conventions of their musical language still very much looked outward to Europe and remained very much bound within the strictures of the academy as opposed to springing from the roots of Scottish folk music, disenabling them to establish - as one now, a century on, would have liked - a more radical and truly culturally diagnostic classical music.

The works of Wallace are truly resplendent and, performed by an orchestra thoroughly immersed in the heart of the composer, provide perhaps the most demonstrably soul-subduing musical experience.


Vincent Budd

More detail on this recording is available


Ian Lace


Vincent Budd

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