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Geoffrey BUSH (1920-1998)
Overture, Yorick (1949) [8:32].
Music for Orchestra (1967) [16:08].
Symphony No. 1 (1954) [27:38]
Symphony No. 2 The Guildford (1957) [26:48]
New Philharmonia Orchestra/Vernon Handley (Yorick); London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley (Music for Orchestra); London Symphony Orchestra/Nicholas Braithwaite (1st Symphony); Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Barry Wordsworth. (2nd Symphony)
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, 25 August 1976 (Yorick); Walthamstow Assembly Hall, 4 January 1972 (Music for Orchestra); Kingsway Hall, London, 2-3 August 1978 (1st Symphony); Watford Town Hall, 13 January 1994 (2nd Symphony) ADD/DDD (2nd Symphony only)
LYRITA RECORDED EDITION SRCD252 [76.32]


‘Can I do you now, Sir?’ Perhaps this expression has gone into many books of modern quotations? And alongside it will be 'After you, Claude - no, After you Cecil'’ and ‘Going down now, Sir.’

Tommy Handley last presented ITMA (It’s That Man Again) on 6 January 1949; three days later he was dead. The radio show had survived the war years with its fast, zany and extremely funny sense of humour that had appealed to everyone but particularly to servicemen and women. I can remember my father, a former Sapper, eulogising it. In fact I lent him a BBC cassette tape of four episodes - and it disappeared from sight until I sorted out his effects shortly after his death.

But what has all this got to do with Geoffrey Bush and this excellent Lyrita CD? Well it has all to do with that other sometime comedian, actor and scriptwriter Bill Shakespeare. Remember the words from Hamlet, ‘Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.’ Of course Yorick, whose skull Hamlet is holding, was his father's jester.

Bush had been commissioned to write a piece for the National Association of Boys Clubs in memory of their late patron who happened to be Tommy Handley. And perhaps he was struggling to make a connection when he thought of these words. The parallel of Tommy Handley and the dead jester was apposite, especially when Hamlet’s thoughts about Yorick’s ‘flashes of merriment that was wont to set the table on a roar.’

The Overture, Yorick is actually a well-balanced and quite nuanced piece. It is roughly divided into three parts, the outer sections ‘with the customary statement, development and recapitulation of two themes’ paints a portrait of the hilarious side of Tommy Handley’s nature. However, the lovely wistful middle section is perhaps a funeral elegy for the departed comic. There is no doubt that Bush nods to Prokofiev in this work – including an allusion to Peter and the Wolf.

The first performance was at the Albert Hall where it should have been a huge success. But the ‘student orchestra’, the ‘New Philharmonic’, was hardly up to scratch. A contemporary reviewer noted that ‘…the players were insufficiently sure of themselves to give Geoffrey Bush’s … overture the sparkle it needed.’ However he recognised the potential of this work and concluded that Yorick is ‘a deft and ingenious little piece which young people of all ages could enjoy without any kind of effort.’ TTFN!

I have not heard the Music for Orchestra before, so I rely on Geoffrey Bush’s own commentary on this work for most of my information. In 1967 the piece was commissioned for the Shropshire Schools Symphony Orchestra; which still appears to be going strong, although with a new name. The composer specifies two aims that he had in mind for this piece. The first was to write a work that presented a ‘fully worked out musical argument … a miniature symphony in fact.’ His second was to write ‘a showpiece for orchestra which would give solo opportunities to the leaders of each instrumental group.’

The work is divided into four ‘sections’ or ‘movements’ of a similar length but of totally contrasting material. The opening ‘Prologue’ has three themes – that work out with and sometimes against each other. The balance between what must have sounded quite ‘modern’ to some in the audience and more ‘conventional’ music is quite interesting. The dialogue between the trumpet solo and the strings is a highlight especially when followed by more reflective music on strings with tuned percussion as accompaniment which is actually quite laid back, or even cool! The ‘scherzo’ is sheer pleasure. Complex rhythms and Bach-like music lead to a well-balanced but quite varied movement. Bush avoids using the ‘traditional’ trio in his scherzo but replaces this with two cadenzas that are full of musically interesting phrases. The slow movement is the heart of the work. There is much beautiful string writing here. The outer sections of this ternary movement feature the flute and the middle section calls for the leaders of the string sections to play as a quartet. This is very deep music and must have been quite challenging to a ‘youth orchestra.’ The last movement is very short. Basically Bush draws together everything that has happened in the previous three. But there is new material here too. This is an eclectic mix of musical sounds that is entirely effective.

I enjoyed Music for Orchestra although I had to listen to the work twice to get the full benefit. It could easily be regarded as Geoffrey Bush’s ‘Third Symphony’ – or is it really more a ‘Concerto for Orchestra’? Whatever your view, this is fine, well crafted music that is challenging, moving and certainly interesting. It does not deserve neglect.

The work had its first performance at the Shrewsbury Festival in March 1968 with the composer conducting.

1954 was a great year at the Cheltenham Festival. Concert-goers had a chance to hear a number of fine works – although I guess most are now forgotten. This review is not a history of the Festival – but a ‘little list’ will not go amiss. Works included Alan Rawsthorne's String Quartet No.2, Peter Racine Fricker's Rapsodia Concertante, Alun Hoddinott’s Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra and Graham Whettam’s Concerto for Viola and Orchestra. However the two symphonies were of considerable note. Of course one of them is Geoffrey Bush’s First but the other is sadly neglected today – Stanley Bate’s Symphony No.3. The review of this work in the Yorkshire Post was typical – ‘the most striking modern orchestral work we have heard this week.’ Perhaps a recording of this work is long overdue. But ‘Back to Bush...’

This Symphony No. 1 took over two years to compose. Bush writes that it was ‘a slow and laborious process.’ Much time was spent writing and rewriting the music before he felt it was complete. Ironically he finished the work just 12 hours before the birth of his son – so no doubt he was free to do the chores round the house and look after mother and child!

The First Symphony resides in a totally different sound-world to that of the earlier Yorick Overture. Yet as a contemporary reviewer remarked, ‘[It is] a sane work that refrained from making heavy weather with modern anxieties.’

The work opens darkly and ominously but it is this initial theme that provides most of the material for the remainder of the movement. The scoring is perhaps less ‘stark’ than other reviewers have suggested, but the fact remains that this is no ‘pastoral’ or ‘post romantic’ exercise. Yet there are plenty of lovely tunes and phrases tossed around the orchestra. In many ways the first movement is actually a ‘discourse on a lively theme.’

The slow movement is the heart of the work. Written as a kind of memorial to Constant Lambert, Bush calls it an ‘elegiac blues’ - obviously after the eponymous piano piece by the older composer. After a well balanced first section and an impressive build-up we hear a quotation from Lambert’s great choral work Rio Grande. This movement is a lovely, and quite moving tribute to a composer who was a great pioneer amongst 20th century composers in exploring the possibilities of jazz and ‘modern’ dance music.

The last movement has all the hallmarks of an Italian Comedy – or at least so the composer tells us. There are definite references back to the opening bars of the symphony – but I do not think that Bush means the work to be cyclic. Perhaps the beauty of this movement is the manner in which the composer utilises the traditional symphonic exposition of two contrasting subjects, however at the point when we expect the development to begin the composer surprises us with a third theme. Soon the work is rushing to its conclusion and the work ends in ‘a blaze of D major.’ There is no doubt that rhythmic exhilaration is the key to this last movement.

Contemporary reviewers were seriously impressed by this work. But perhaps the greatest compliment was that this work is ‘a true and honest representation of its composer without any self-conscious striving for the grandiose or for novelty for its own sake.’ There can be nothing better said about any composition – especially a symphony. Furthermore I was struck by the sheer craftsmanship of this work – the orchestration and the balance and the unity of this piece give it an extremely satisfying air. This First Symphony is not perhaps a major twentieth century masterpiece but it is a great work that does not deserve the neglect it has had over the past fifty years or so.

I must confess that I not so sure of what to make of the Second SymphonyThe Guildford. The history of this work is that it was commissioned as a part of the 700th anniversary of the granting of a Royal Charter to the city of Guildford. It was first performed in November 1957 by the Guildford Municipal Orchestra with the composer on the rostrum. I was unable to find any contemporary reviews of this work so I am not sure what the audience and the pundits made of it. However it did not regularly appear at symphonic concerts over the years and was not broadcast until the late nineteen-eighties.

The work is ‘officially’ in one continuous movement yet there are clearly four defined sections. The construction is more complex than that of the First Symphony although it does not really stress our musical appreciation. Bush has stated that this is really a festive work – which should be listened to in that spirit. He is concerned that perhaps too much effort will be put into analysing the structure and the genesis of this piece rather than just simply enjoying it. He suggests that the listener gets ‘caught up in the prevailing atmosphere of jubilation.’

The work does not really require analysis – but a few words about each section will not be amiss. The symphony opens with a kind of chorale theme for the various department of the orchestra. However it soon turns into a fanfare suggesting the Grand Old Duke of York or some other important person is about to arrive - although it may be a bit jazzy for some VIPs’ taste. Soon the music evolves into an exciting allegro that contrasts two excellent tunes or perhaps allows them to enter into a dialogue with each other.

The ‘slow movement’ is quite definitely the heart of the work. Now I am not suggesting that there is an incipient pastoralism in this work, but I do feel that this music evokes something of the countryside around Guildford. But even this reflective music is interrupted by dramatic outbursts. So perhaps there is a little problem of balance in this movement? However, there are some lovely moments in this music

I am not quite sure what to make of the scherzo. It is quite obviously a cheerful and exuberant movement with lots of ‘fun’ instrumentation, especially for woodwind. Yet somehow I am not convinced by it. Perhaps it just a little too light-hearted, without pretending to be ‘light music?’

The composer describes the last movement as being a recapitulation of material from the first. Yet it seems to me that there is more energy and perhaps even more consistency of purpose in these last pages than in the rest of the Symphony. This is great stuff.

So overall an enjoyable Symphony but one that leads me to worry a little about the stylistic balance – yet as Geoffrey Bush insists, and I paraphrase, we need to sit back and enjoy.

John France

see also review by Colin Clarke

 



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