Alan Rawsthorne


The Music of Alan  Rawsthorne

Rawsthorne has been called master of the epigram. As a generality this term provides the listener with an expectation of the dimensions of his music, it does not signify that he is in any sense a miniaturist. From the earliest published compositions his works are marked by clarity of expression and form, seriousness of purpose, craftsmanship and conciseness. His personality shows through in a degree of understatement, an integrity which refuses to compromise or follow fashion and, on occasion, a light touch exposed in a sharp wit.

Rawsthorne found his distinctive voice, and articulated it with conviction, from a very early stage in his career. Three works from this period are seminal. The Theme and Variations for Two Violins (1937), the Bagatelles for Piano (1938) and the Symphonic Studies (1938) firmly established his harmonic and melodic language, demonstrated his consummate craftsmanship, dramatic directness of utterance and established the bedrock of forms upon which he was to build thenceforth; first instrumental and chamber music, in which the piano was to feature prominently, and second a symphonic output in a variety forms. These three early works, each a first essay in the chosen form, burst forth with massive assurance as if they were the culmination of years of experience and development.

His chamber works form one of the most substantial contributions to English twentieth century music in this genre. The Three String Quartets, of 1940, 1954 and 1965, map his musical development throughout his professional life.. The First is recognisably a close relative of the three seminal works cited above, the Second demonstrates a modification of language, which is moving to a greater economy of utterance and the paring away of anything which fails to contribute to the musical argument. These were distinguishing features of the late pieces, of which the Third Quartet is highly characteristic. There are several works involving wind instruments in combination with strings and piano, of which the Clarinet Quartet of 1948 and the Quintet for Piano and Winds of 1963 are examples of Rawsthorne’s chamber output at its best.

Of the solo instrumental works for string instruments the romantically expressive Sonata for Cello and Piano of 1949 and the Sonata for Violin and Piano of 1960 are important, both show intimate understanding of the string instruments and the rôle of the piano as a true partner.

Rawsthorne was an admirer of Chopin and gained the insights of a performer from his own training as a pianist. These are reflected in the half dozen solo piano works, four of which are significant additions to the piano literature. These are the Bagatelles (1938), Sonatina (1949), Four Romantic Pieces (1953) and Ballade (1967). All exploit imaginatively the inherent characteristics of the instrument and reveal the colours and textures of which it is capable.

The Symphonic Studies show Rawsthorne in full command of the symphony orchestra, with which he paints a rich, imaginative and characteristic sound picture; the bravura writing makes it a veritable concerto for orchestra. To this he was to add three symphonies in 1950, 1959 and 1964. The First received high praise from Hans Keller (no mean achievement) on its first performance. The Second is Rawsthorne’s ‘Pastoral’, one not given to the bucolic meandering of the English ‘cowpat school’, but a reflective townsman’s excursion which incorporates a solo soprano part into the final movement. The Third is possibly the finest of all Rawsthorne’s symphonic works, an early product of the final period of his writing. It set the tone, perhaps rather valedictory, for what was to follow. It contains melodic fragments which were to recur and be developed in many of the works which followed it. Notable is the slow ‘alla sarabanda’, which has Rawsthorne creating orchestral sonorities, of which there are none more refined and delicate elsewhere in his output.

There are eight concertos and, as might be expected, the First and Second Concertos for Piano (1942) and (1951) demonstrate both fine writing for the solo instrument and skilled integration of soloist and orchestra. The Second was ‘popular’ and at one time widely performed due, in the main, to the unbuttoned humour of its final movement, whilst ignoring the forte of the previous three movements. Michael Kennedy said of the piece, “The tunes seep into the mind and stay there. One welcomes their insistence on being remembered”. The First Violin Concerto (1948) had been a casualty of the Bristol Blitz, necessitating its rewriting for the 1948 Cheltenham Festival. This two movement work again shows the composer handling the solo instrument with great acumen and producing one of his most melodically rich and accessible works. As such it is unclear why it has not remained in the repertoire. The Second Violin Concerto of 1956 is couched in the language of the transitional phase of Rawsthorne’s development, a work more sophisticated than the First Concerto in its thematic content and development, but again displaying an understanding of the expressive and dramatic potential of the solo instrument. The trio of string concertos is completed by the ‘Cello Concerto‘ of 1966.

Other orchestral pieces, fifteen in all, are characteristic of the composer, none more so than the energetic Street Corner Overture which, for all its surface élan, hides skilful compositional devices in its deeper levels. This is a mood piece and is a link to the many film scores which were a major part of the composer’s body of work. At one and the same time they support the dramatic requirements whilst respecting the necessity that the music should heighten yet not upstage the visual images. That only one set piece from the film music exists for concert performance is indicative of the organic character of the composer’s contribution. The film music is often the first point of introduction to Rawsthorne’s music; that film music buffs are more Familiar with his name than concert-goers gives pause for thought for those who would promote his music. Notable among the scores are those for the “Cruel Sea”, capturing so well the winter greyness of the North Atlantic, “The Captive Heart”, providing tantalising snippets of improvised piano music so redolent of what was to come, and “Saraband for Dead Lovers” in which the composer explores with dignified gravity the byways of the ubiquitous fragment we know as ‘La folia’.

To characterise Rawsthorne as solely an instrumental composer is to do him an injustice. There is a small number of choral pieces, effectively written, and a handful of published songs, some of which are excellent and sensitive settings of a wide range of poets. When asked why he had not set more poems to music Rawsthorne, with characteristic and laconic directness, replied “….because I am very fond of poetry”. He was clearly diffident and scrupulous about adding to, and thereby detracting from, that which was entire in itself.

His only stage work was music for a forty minute ballet, “Madame Chrysanthème”, performed by the Sadler’s Wells Ballet in 1955. An opera was being conceived at the time of his death: after a search for a suitable libretto he came to favour John Arden’s “Sergeant Musgrave’s Dance”. His setting of a number of poems from Eliot’s “Practical Cats” (1954) for speaker and orchestra, as an entertainment for children, shows the composer to be well acquainted with and a keen observer of feline single-minded behaviour; having once shared his cottage with as many as twenty seven cats at one time how could he be otherwise? This piece displays in combination his trenchant sense of humour and the application of cogent compositional principles and construction to what might appear to be a superficial illustrative accompaniment. That this, and other works, operate at a variety of levels and for a wide audience, shows the integrity, the complete and unpretentious mastery, and absorption of the composer’s singular character into his art. We should not be surprised, then, that his music epitomises his view of himself as both artist and artisan.

© John. M. Belcher – The Rawsthorne Trust March 1997