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    "Sunset of Empire" 

Saturday, June 7th, 2003, 8:00pm

The Chapel, Victoria University
2nd Floor, 91 Charles Street West, Toronto
(Subway:  Museum)

Admission:  $15 (adults), $10 (students and seniors)

Ellen Meyer, piano
Stephen Fox, clarinet/bass clarinet
Joyce Lai, violin


Damian Rivers-Moore, horn
Helena Likwornik, cello
Ian Clarke, viola
Andrew Ogilvie, violin

Trio in D for clarinet, cello and piano                                                                                  John Ireland 
     Allegro non troppo
     Con moto
(first performance since 1914)

Phantasy Quintet for bass clarinet and strings                                                                      York Bowen


Nocturne "Fairyland" for clarinet, viola and piano                                                         Josef Holbrooke

Sextet for clarinet, horn and strings                                                                                      John Ireland
     Allegro non troppo
     Andante con moto
     Intermezzo.  Andante con grazia
     In tempo moderato

A hundred years ago, it used to be said that “the sun will never set on the British Empire”, a belief that - as tends to happen with such hubris - was disproved more quickly than anyone could have guessed when Britannia ruled the waves and the map was pink.  In this concert we revisit the original territory of the Riverdale Ensemble, drawing on the artistic spirit of Britain in the period around and shortly after the turn of the 20th century - full of confidence and unabashedly Romantic, but with storm clouds beginning to curdle the milk of a golden age.


Though presenting little-known music is standard practice for the Riverdale Ensemble (all the music programmed today is being played from handwritten parts!), this is the first time that we have had the honour to resurrect a major work from musty museum purgatory where it has lain for nearly nine decades.  This is the case with the Trio in D for clarinet, cello and piano by John Ireland (1879-1962).

Composed in 1912-13, the Trio was performed only once, at Steinway Hall in London in June 1914.  The typically self-critical Ireland was not satisfied, and he reworked the Trio by transposing it into E and replacing the clarinet with a violin; in this form it again received just one performance, the following year.  The reason for the change of instruments is not recorded, but perhaps lack of confidence in handling the clarinet was a part of it; signs of this are a low Eb, unplayable on a standard clarinet, in the first movement, and several uncomfortably high passages.  (The reason cannot have been lack of esteem for the clarinet, as evidenced by the Sextet presented tonight and his monumental Fantasy Sonata of 1943).  Finally, more than two decades later, material from the piece - radically altered, and with an entirely new slow movement - was used as a basis for Ireland’s Piano Trio No. 3 in E, published in 1938.  Thus in this concert we are performing the Trio in its clarinet (we would like to say original) guise for the second time ever in public, for the first time since 1914 and for the first time outside Britain.

Recreating the Trio in its ancestral form has involved some detective work and a helping of informed extrapolation, starting with the incomplete manuscript score in the British Library in London.  The score has the first and fourth movements mostly intact, so apart from surmising the last couple of bars of the first movement, the main challenge with them was to decipher cuts, questionable notes and numerous barely legible editorial instructions.  The slow movement is present but regrettably is from the 1915 version, for violin; this then needed to be transposed and the upper part readapted for clarinet.  Finally, the scherzo is represented by only two surviving score pages, but reconstructing it from the 1938 edition - incorporating the two original pages at the appropriate point - was ironically the least problematic part of the process.

By 1912 Ireland had found his voice as a composer, so the Trio in many places sounds as one would expect his work to sound.  At times, though, his experimenting with compositional technique is apparent; the third movement, for example, with its non-functional piano harmonies over a cello ostinato, could have been written by some British composers of the post-WWII generation.  Though the moods in the Trio are varied, there is a strong presence of the martial element that tended to pervade Ireland’s works written in wartime and in the years when war threatened; it is probably not a coincidence that the Trio, composed when the First World War was in the air, was revived on the eve of the Second.

As the only piece for this standard instrumental combination to be found in the rich and unique genre of British late Romantic music, the Trio was worth the trouble and should become a significant addition to the repertoire.


York Bowen (1884-1961) was born in London as Edwin Yorke Bowen, the son of the founder of a whiskey distillery.  He showed talent early on as a pianist, making his concerto debut at the age of eight and entering the Royal Academy of Music at the age of 14 (the same age as John Ireland), and developed into one of the most brilliant performers of his day.  He also played the viola and horn at a professional level, performing on the latter in the Band of the Scots Guards during the First World War. 

On graduating from the Royal Academy, Bowen was dubbed "the most remarkable of the young British composers" by Camille Saint-Saëns.  His compositions include two symphonies, four piano concerti, orchestral tone poems and a large number of chamber and piano works.  Bowen’s music is written in a rich Romantic language that fell out of fashion early in his career; as a consequence his work languished in obscurity for much of the century, and his later life brought little public acclaim.  Much of his output has remained unpublished and hence unheard by modern audiences until very recently. 

The Phantasy Quintet Op. 93, for the apparently unique but very welcome combination of bass clarinet and string quartet, is dated 1932; otherwise the circumstances of its genesis are unfortunately not recorded.  Much of Bowen's music is light and genial, featuring singable and sometimes folk-influenced melodies (the Sonata for clarinet and piano and the Rhapsody for viola and piano, presented in previous seasons by the Riverdale Ensemble, are examples of this), but the Quintet is darker and more intense.  It is also one of his more complex and compositionally adventurous works.  Bowen’s own primary instrument, the viola, is given an especially prominent part, matching the sombre tone of the bass clarinet. 


Much of what has been said about York Bowen could be applied equally to Josef Holbrooke (1878-1958).  Christened Joseph Holbrooke, in common with Bowen he later chose to change the spelling of his name.  He also embarked on a career as a pianist at an early age, and became noted in addition as both a conductor and a composer of orchestral music.  Though he achieved a prominent reputation, his star faded rapidly in the 1920s, a result of his anachronistically Romantic musical style, the uneven quality of some of his music, the extravagant resources needed for his orchestral works which made them uneconomical to produce, and doubtless also political reasons - his acerbic and at times outrageous writing as a music critic cannot have failed to make enemies. 

Even more than that of Bowen, Holbrooke’s extensive chamber music output is at present largely unpublished or out of print and virtually never performed.  (Holbrooke's son, the renowned British bassoonist Gwydion Brooke, is presently the guardian and distributor of his music.)  The Nocturne Op. 57 No. 1, for clarinet, viola and piano, displays a characteristic use of songlike melody combined with "impressionistic" texture and harmony to create a nebulous, "creepy" atmosphere. 

Holbrooke was fascinated by the work of Edgar Allan Poe, whose poem Fairyland provides the inspiration and subtitle for the Nocturne: 

                          Dim vales and shadowy floods – 
                          And cloudy-looking woods, 
                          Whose forms we can’t discover 
                          For the tears that drip all over! 
                          Huge moons there wax and wane – 
                          Again – again – again – 
                          Every moment of the night 
                          For ever changing places – 
                          And they put out the star-light 
                          With the breath from their pale faces. 
                          About twelve by the moon-dial 
                          One more filmy than the rest 
                          (A kind which, upon trial, 
                          They have found to be the best) 
                          Comes down – still down – and down – 
                          With its centre on the crown 
                          Of a mountain’s eminence, 
                          While its wide circumference 
                          In easy drapery falls 
                          Over hamlets, over halls. 
                          Wherever they may be – 
                          O’er the strange woods – o’er the sea – 
                          Over every drowsy thing – 
                          And buries them up quite 
                          In a labyrinth of light – 
                          And then, how deep! – O, deep! 
                          Is the passion of their sleep. 
                          In the morning they arise, 
                          And their moony covering 
                          Is soaring in the skies, 
                          With the tempests as they toss, 
                          Like – almost any thing – 
                          Or a yellow Albatross.
                          They use the same end as before – 
                          Videlicet a tent – 
                          Which I think extravagant; 
                          Its atomies, however, 
                          Into a shower dissover, 
                          Of which those butterflies 
                          Of Earth, who seek the skies, 
                          And so come down again 
                          (Never contented things!) 
                          Have brought a specimen 
                          Upon their quivering wings. 
                                       - Edgar Allan Poe


“All Brahms and water, me boy, and more water than Brahms… Study some Dvorak for a bit, and bring me something that isn’t like Brahms.  And write your stuff in ink - no pencil sketches here.”  Such was the advice given to the 18 year old neophyte composer and child prodigy pianist John Ireland at his first lesson with Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, the mentor of a generation of British composers.  One of the first pieces of music Ireland wrote with this in mind was the Sextet for clarinet, horn and strings, completed in 1898 but neither published nor performed in public until 1960.

Notwithstanding Stanford’s command, a seminal influence on Ireland was hearing a performance in London of the Brahms Clarinet Quintet, by Richard Mühlfeld and the Joachim Quartet.  Ireland enthused:  “The clarinet in Mühlfeld’s hands was like something we had never heard before… so on this occasion there was not only the thrill of a new and splendid work from the pen of the greatest living composer, but the revelation of Mühlfeld’s clarinet playing”.  While echoes of Brahms do appear in the Sextet, it is perhaps in general closer to the style and spirit of Dvorak.  The addition of the horn augments the richness of the tonal palette and the pastoral, serenade-like nature of the work.  Overall it is the creation of a young mind filled with sunny exuberance, written with skill and assurance.  That Ireland suppressed it is perhaps not surprising, since it is vastly less characteristic of his personal voice than the music he wrote only a few years later, and he was renowned for the ruthlessness with which he judged his own work and that of his students.  We breathe a sigh of relief, though, that Ireland (unlike, say, Dvorak with his lost clarinet quintet) allowed it to see the light of day in the end.



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