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WHEREON THE WILD THYME BLOWS
David Bowerman Chamber Works

 

 


Music about music: nothing could be more fashionably Postmodern. But there is no knowing irony here, no historical relativism; not even the Brahmsian melancholy of the latecomer initiated into the arts of greater predecessors. There is only pleasure in the material, and a desire to give thanks (and pleasure to others) through modest imitation. Unashamed to be the kind of composer he is, David Bowerman says that these compositions are more reflective, than futuristic. I unashamedly draw on music that has meant much to me; a love of the music of Elgar and the organ works of César Franck.

The 20th century made a fetish of originality, or at least up-to-dateness, in the arts. But a very wise (and profoundly original) composer once commented to me that creativity was never about making something out of nothing: creativity above all is a matter of appetite. The composer, for example, comes to know himself through the music that he identifies with most strongly – that he loves the most, and for him the primal urge is to make more of it. It’s through his personal selection of the aspects of this music which he seeks to multiply in the world, that his individuality emerges. After all, was it not Schoenberg who said: ‘In the arts, there is only one real teacher: inclination. And he only has one useful assistant: imitation’?

David Bowerman’s Fantasies – he is fond of that title, which suggests both the viol fantasies of 17th-century English music and the 19th-century ‘fantasy’ on favourite themes, from opera or elsewhere – are partly transcription of, partly musings upon, the themes of the composers whose works he loves. Transcription and re-arrangement used to invite critical dismissal, but not so much in these more enlightened times. It was the master-transcriber Busoni who pointed out that the composer’s very first concrete realization of a theme or a work, into notation and chosen instrument, was already a transcription of his original idea: just one realization among an infinite multitude of compositional possibilities. The idea of infinite, as yet unrealized possibilities is a Leitmotif in the fictions of Jorge Luis Borges. In his story ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’, for instance, a supposedly chaotic and unfinished Chinese novel of that title in fact teaches that a story can have an illimitable number of resolutions in innumerable possible futures. In a sense David Bowerman’s Fantasies show this principle in action: they actualize one possible future in which the materials of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius become a string quartet; those of Die Meistersinger, a piano trio.

All of which may seem a roundabout, esoteric way of approaching music that does not pretend to be anything more than a way to share well-loved ideas with friends. As I wrote in the notes for Bowerman’s Favoured Fantasies (CHRCD015), ‘this a friendly, social music. The works are written, often, as a tribute or present for their performers (very distinguished performers, in some cases), both for them to enjoy and as a vehicle for them to show off their paces. … The original pieces … act as a springboard for Bowerman’s imagination, but he wishes to evoke them, not outsoar them’.

The degrees of transcription, and its admixture of ‘fantasy’, varies from work to work in the current programme. The serene string quartet after César Franck’s 1884 Prelude, chorale and fugue is transcription pure and simple, done with reverence but also considerable artistry. It should be noted that Bowerman thinks of the original as an organ piece, commenting that ‘Its somewhat haunting nature could almost at times be described as monotonous when played on the organ’ – but Franck’s much-circulated organ version is already a transcription: the work was originally composed for piano. Certainly the four strings reveal new and delightful possibilities of tone-colour here.

The other string quartet, Gerontius Revisited, is much more of an original composition using Elgar’s themes throughout: its three movements are almost a compressed synopsis of the great oratorio, but their artful re-ordering and combination create a drama in a ‘pure music’ context. Bowerman freely admits that To emulate, in any way, this amazing experience is impossible, but this quartet is designed to remind the listener who is unable to get to a live performance, of some of the “heart-subduing melodies” it holds. The piano trio Fantasy on a Mastersong is similar in intention and execution, though its origin was slightly different: ‘Listening to a CD of Meistersinger on a distant beach, I felt inclined to jot down these extracts … little reminders of a great opera’.

The Shakespeare settings are transcription of a different kind. Great song-writers have often preferred to set second-rate verse (Schubert, Brahms!) because such poems are not strong enough to be self-sufficient: they leave something for the music to do, the music completes them and the makes them something greater than they were. Really great verse is often hugely difficult to set, not least because the poet has already composed into it a self-sufficient word-music: music can seldom do much here, and if too fussy and self-important can actually detract from the effect of the poem.

Shakespeare is the supreme word-musician of the English language; yet paradoxically he wrote many texts for music in his plays, and many great songs have been written to them, from Thomas Campion’s day to our own. The sonnets are more challenging, as are passages of blank verse from the dramas. Clearly Bowerman is aware of these pitfalls. His settings on this CD do not draw undue attention to themselves or establish too distinct a melodic profile. Instead, using a harmonic profile redolent of the great early-20th-century age of English songwriting (Butterworth, Gurney, Ireland, Finzi), he provides a discreet ‘setting’ in the jeweller's sense, a surrounding aura to show off the jewel. And the jewel itself – Shakespeare’s verse – is scanned with a minutely accurate ear for its prosody and the innate music of the words themselves.

The piano piece Carne Beach, named after ‘one of those delightful little bays that adorn the Cornish coastline’ in a sense transcribes a natural phenomenon: with its touches of phosphorescent whole-tone impressionism backed by a Brahmsian undertow, it records the experience of a ‘retreat to a hotel in February (where it rained every day) overlooked the perpetual but gentle rolling of the waves up the sandy shore, occasionally disturbed when the wind rose, but subsided again to its monotonous yet peaceful rhythm. The effect is eventually rather hypnotic.

The jewel of this collection, however, must surely be the Fantasy on a Fugue of Elgar for flute, oboe, violin and strings. The core of this beautiful piece is provided by an Elgar manuscript that Bowerman bought at auction: a very early 2-part fugue written for Elgar’s brother and a German friend. As is well known, the young Elgar taught himself composition, learning his craft through imitation of the classics – Bach, Handel, Mozart and so on (this is an example of Schoenberg’s ‘useful assistant’ in operation). The manuscript was ‘by any standards scruffy, and required some delicate interpretation’, but the piece which emerged is a sprightly little thing, like a Bachian two-part invention with a Handelian twist. In itself it was so slight it hardly merited performance, but Bowerman had the happy idea to embed it in a ‘into a string orchestral fantasy of Elgarian themes … it is probably the only way this little gem will ever be heard!’ Hints of the Serenade for strings, ‘Nimrod’ and other Elgar echoes are in fact never obtrusive in this delightful meditation that travels between the late 19th-century and the Baroque using Elgar’s fugue as its time-machine.

Malcolm MacDonald


   
   

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