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Paul Carr’s Air for String Orchestra

It is often not easy to evaluate whether a piece of music should be classified as ‘light’ or otherwise. In fact, it can quite difficult to define exactly what we mean by ‘otherwise’. For example, are Mozart’s Divertimentos or Schubert’s Ländler ‘light’ or are they ‘art’ music? I guess that most critics would be appalled at attaching such a ‘demeaning’ label to Wolfgang or Franz. Yet I believe that much of their music is not designed to be anything other than entertaining. These are not works that are storming the gates of heaven! However, the man or woman on the Clapham Routemaster would probably say - if they knew about such things - that Eric Coates wrote ‘light’ music. And so did Robert Farnon, Sidney Torch and Trevor Duncan. They would almost certainly deny the honour to Elgar or to Vaughan Williams, who they would imagine were perpetually serious. However, the cognoscenti know that both of those composers wrote a deal of music that does not challenge the listeners understanding –Mina, Salut d’Amour, the English Folk Song Suite and so forth. But they are enjoyable and minor masterpieces in their own right.

Now where does his leave Paul Carr’s fine Air for Strings? It has been recently released on an album entitled ‘Light Music Premieres – Volume 5’ by Dutton Epoch (see review) – so a definition seems to have already been established – at least in Dutton’s mind. I contend otherwise. Even on the least attentive hearing of this work, it reveals a mood and a style that approaches the depth of Samuel Barber’s ubiquitous Adagio for Strings. And I am not exaggerating to make a point. Paul Carr’s work is profound music that is quite capable of deeply moving the listener and bringing a genuine tear to the eye. It is ‘art’ music at its best – and serious to boot. The listener experiences the sense of deep loss and perhaps even of tragedy. And for the record, let us just say that the emotional and historical background of the piece was a separation, a splitting up from, a beloved partner.

The Air for Strings was originally the slow-movement of a Violin Concerto that Carr wrote back in the early ’nineties. The composer told me that he was unhappy with the complete work and subsequently withdrew it after its first performance in Brighton. However, he considered that the slow movement had a ‘sad and haunting theme’: he always believed that one day he would re-use this music.

The music was actually redrafted in Mallorca where the composer now lives and works. He moved there in 2003 to concentrate on composition and painting after a career as a successful stage manager in the United Kingdom. One ‘lonely night’ in 2006 he came across the manuscript of his Violin Concerto and began to rework the slow movement as a piece for string orchestra. The work was dedicated to his former partner, Cy.

The composer has described the composition in the following terms: - “The Air is a heartfelt love song in the form of a long arching lament built around a simple and passionate theme woven through the orchestra”. The music slowly builds “towards a climactic statement about half way through involving the whole orchestra. The music then subsides leaving the theme exposed in a more relaxed setting before arriving at its conclusion in quiet, calm suspension.”

Subsequently, the work was rescored for full orchestra for a performance by the Sussex Symphony Orchestra, a group with whom the composer has a long-standing relationship. Carr told me that these two versions of the piece were (by coincidence) given first performances a week apart, with the Air for Strings being played in Lewes by The Musicians of All Saints, and the Air for Orchestra given the following weekend in Brighton by the SSO conducted by Mark Andrew James.

Presently, only the ‘string orchestra’ version is recorded, so the listener cannot compare the two. However the full orchestra reworking retained much of the original string writing but with added solos for the woodwind, trumpets and horns, and the use of the brass section as “a sonorous cushion in both [the] tranquil and more powerful sections”.

Carr admitted that “whilst the original version has an emotional intensity particular to the strings, the orchestral version adds a greater richness and depth of colour, utilising the variety and power inherent in a full symphony orchestra”. This edition for large orchestra was dedicated “in love to the composer’s former partner Cy and to his dear friend Fran, on the occasion of turning 40.”

It is obvious that the 'full orchestra' adaptation must be “richer in colour” and will make “a more impressive impact.” However, I do agree with the composer that the string version “carries an intensity and intimacy that is naturally inherent in the make-up of a string orchestra”.

But the story of the work’s metamorphoses is not yet complete. Not being content with two incarnations of this piece, Carr devised a version for Viola and Strings called Viola Air, for Peter Sulski, who gave the first performance of this in America.

All three editions are published by Goodmusic Publishing. The original ‘string’ piece was recorded, as noted above, for Dutton by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia and was conducted by Barry Wordsworth.

But the story continues. There is now a fourth manifestation of the Air for chamber orchestra, which the composer made for a concert by the Bath Philharmonic given in November 2008 in Bath Abbey. Interestingly, it was conducted by the composer’s brother Gavin Carr. The Air was well received alongside the chamber edition of Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, Aaron Copland's Quiet City, and Morten Lauridsen's exquisite Lux Aeterna.  Paul Carr told me that the orchestration of this version was defined by what he knew was available to him: strings, harp, percussion, timpani, solo wind and solo brass. The composer was extremely satisfied with the acoustic of Bath Abbey and felt that the piece worked well. It will be recorded later this year on the new NAIM Label on a proposed CD of Carr’s music which will also include his Requiem for an Angel and a setting of a poem by e.e. cummings for choir and chamber orchestra  -  i thank You God for most this amazing day.

Unfortunately there appears to be few reviews of the Air - in any of its four editions. Dutton Epoch in their publicity for their CD release state, and I believe without too much exaggeration, that Paul Carr's Air for Strings is “uniquely compelling, an orchestral love-song, that bids fair to supplant Barber's celebrated Adagio for Strings”. Well, hardly to 'supplant', but possibly to complement...

In the December 2008 issue of The Gramophone, Andrew Lamb suggested that “…the real treasure from his pen… is the passionate Air for Strings, which deserves wider currency" Peter Lloyd Williams in the Bath Chronicle, following the premiere of the chamber version wrote that "Paul Carr's Air allowed each section of the orchestra a chance to be heard in a serenely peaceful setting, skilfully building to a passionate climax, before the final calm resolution."

John France

February 2009


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