Cecilian Celebration: a Triumphant Boyce Revival

Reprinted from Fanfare Magazine (USA), September/October 2000 ©:

Cecilian Celebration: a Triumphant Boyce Revival  BY BRIAN ROBINS  

For those of us who have long trumpeted the merits of the man who is arguably England's greatest 18th-century composer, the news that ASV is to devote a series of recordings to William Boyce is cause for rejoicing indeed. Too long known for little more than his eight bright and breezy symphonies (themselves overtures to larger-scale works), Boyce demands and deserves far greater attention. Certainly, no one familiar with the splendid Hyperion recording of one of his masterpieces, the Serenata Solomon, is likely to argue with such a sentiment. For the new series, at present planned to run to four discs, we have the enthusiasm of the young British conductor Graham Lea-Cox to thank. Not only will Lea-Cox be the conductor throughout, but he is also responsible for preparing the editions used for the recordings. I gave an enthusiastic welcome to the first disc, the premiere recording of The Secular Masque in 22: I, not realizing at the time that it was more than a one-off (truth to tell, I'm not sure anyone did).  

I tracked down Lea-Cox while he was making an extended visit to Italy, from where he agreed to talk about the project and the new recording. I first asked him how he had initially become interested in so neglected a figure as Boyce. He explained that it had been a process that had several stages, starting during his teens when he had a Karajan LP recording of the eight symphonies. "For all its faults stylistically, it was amazing. I practically wore it out." Later Lea-Cox became a chorister at Christ Church, Oxford, where, as he puts it, "we sang little bits of the sacred music here and there. He sort of lurked in my mind for some years." The early 90s found him working on 18th-century manuscripts for the Drottningholm Opera in Sweden, an experience that left him with an insatiable appetite for trawling through unknown manuscripts. "1 came across The Secular Masque at the Royal College of Music, and became absolutely captivated by it-it was just stunning. I remember the thrill when I got paper copies from the Royal College, and sat in a London square going through the score. From there I went on to read through all the manuscripts at the Bodleian Library in Oxford-the royal odes and so on. It soon became clear that this stuff was extraordinary and, of course, completely unknown except for a few scholars shouting to the wind that someone ought to be doing something about it. So I figured that somebody really should be doing something practical. We started with The Secular Masque, and I was very fortunate to have connections with a trust in London [The Spear Charitable Trust] to facilitate the project, because as you know such things are expensive, and record companies don't take them on lightly these days. But along with the Hanover Band Trust and ASV they took it on, probably because my enthusiasm was so great that I managed to wind them up too! So we did that and, because they are so little known, I wanted to do some of the earlier works like the two St. Cecilia Odes. I've just received the first edit of David's Lamentation over Saul and Jonathan, which IS the most incredibly moving piece. It’s a very sensitive adaptation of the scriptures by John Lockman, the librettist of the present Ode. That will be issued in September on the third disc, which will also include the other Ode for St. Cecilia, a small but wonderfully joyous piece that is quite different to the Lockman setting."  

Despite the wise words of the historian Charles Burney, in whose opinion Boyce was one of the few English composers who had neither "pillaged nor servilely imitated" Handel, posterity continued to view him as some kind of Handel clone. I asked Lea-Cox how he would answer such a charge. "It's simple ignorance, because people don't know his output. You just have to know his story .He was a generation younger than Handel, and of course in that situation nobody can entirely avoid influence. Boyce was a young 20-something-year-old who was hoping to obtain a royal appointment-any appointment at that stage, although he had the patronage of [Maurice] Greene and the Apollo Society. Handel was clearly the most successful and dominating figure on the scene. Therefore, a young composer who has political savvy in addition to being extremely talented is going to capitalize on something that is already extremely popular. Having said that, I think he has a voice of his own which is obviously from the High Baroque stable; but on the other hand you suddenly come across moments which you would swear are years ahead of their time. Formally he experiments with different structures; he's clearly aware of the changing tastes that took place during the 1740s, while keeping his feet firmly within the cathedral tradition, although he toyed with the stage. But The Secular Masque is an extraordinary piece, because Boyce took an exceptionally dense allegory by Dryden, and did much the same with the music.

The St. Cecilia Ode, on the other hand, is much more expansive. In that he gave more rein to looser structures which match Lockman's less-well constructed poetry." The text in fact is admirably suited to the purpose, offering many opportunities for colorful musical effects. As I pointed out to Lea-Cox, it is an accepted truism that the best poetry is not always the best servant of music. "Indeed. It's a very attractive piece of writing. I think the interesting thing about it is that he brought in so much of what was going on the world around him-scientific discovery, politics, and so on. By the way, there has been some comment on the fact that I made a distinction between alto and countertenor on this recording. I did it deliberately because John Church, who originally sang the part in the Dublin version we used for the recording, was a high tenor with an extraordinary range. It appears from the writing that Church must have had a voice that was even across the range, extending to at least a high E. I trawled the world to find such a voice, and there's one Australian by the name of Christopher Jones, but he wasn't available for the recording, so I ended up using two voices that I hoped would be sufficiently distinctive.  "We're hoping to develop awareness of Boyce further with the last disc we're doing in September. That's going to be devoted to the Pindaric Ode 'Music rules the world above"], and one of the late royal odes. I particularly wanted to do something late, because the other pieces we've done are all early works. Those pieces will show us that the man didn't become a complete fossil although he did to some extent withdraw from the new movement, partly because he became profoundly deaf but also, I think, because he became profoundly disenchanted with all the political stuff going on in the theater with Arne and Garrick. He had got his royal appointment, and it is ; shame that he then spent the next 25 years writing occasional works that he knew were probably never going to be heard again-and, it has to be added, were probably not heard much at the time because even though the king and his retinue were in the room when these odes were played, I don' suppose they were quiet!"   


BOYCE Ode for St CecIlia's Day. Graham Lea-Cox, cond; Patrick Burrowes (sop); William Purefoy (alt), Andrew Watts (ct); Richard Edgar-Wilson (ten); Michael George (bass); Ch of New College. Oxford Hanover Band (period instruments) .ASV CD GAU 200 (77:55)  

In the wake of Scottish and Welsh devolution, considerable debate has arisen on this side of the Atlantic as to the nature of "Englishness." Authors and TV journalists have tramped the length an breadth of Britain in an attempt to find answers to this apparently complex question. I could provide them with a simple answer, although I fear few of them would understand it. It runs to five words: the music of William Boyce. Why? Because its robust boldness, breezy open textures, clarity, and direct melodic appeal somehow encapsulate the best (perhaps idealized) kind of "Englishness" with a concision unmatched by any amount of arcane philosophizing.  

Those qualities and more are in plentiful evidence in the setting of Lockman's Ode for St. Cecilia's Day, composed for the Society of Apollo and St. Paul's Cathedral Choir in 1739. The following year the 29-year-old Boyce was offered the opportunity to present the work in Dublin, where it was a great success, subsequently remaining in the repertoire of the city's Philharmonic Society for some years. For the Dublin performance, the composer made some alterations to suit the needs of the soloists, interestingly the same singers who would be responsible for the premiere of Handel's Messiah just over a year later. It is this Dublin version on which Lea-Cox has based his performing edition.  

The Ode is divided into two parts, each prefaced by its own overture. The three-movement piece that heads the work will be recognizable to those familiar with the symphonies as No.5 in D, while the splendid French overture that opens Part II was also included on the earlier disc as a fill- up. The chorus is restricted to the opening and closing vocal movements of each half, the contrast between the bounding extroversion of No. 2, "See fam'd Apollo" (Part I), and the more serious, solid mood of "Hail harmony," pointing up the change of emphasis effected in Part II. Here the text moves from the earlier celebration of the muses and Platonic love through to contemplation of the divine power of music to conclude with the voice of the saint herself urging the rejection of all but sacred love. Not the least remarkable feature of the solo sections is Boyce's handling of accompanied recitative, among which the "Mortal's in hymns of tuneful joy" (Part II) is particularly noteworthy not only for its length but also for the composer's response to the colorful character study of an array of varying instruments. The succeeding alto aria, "Music, gently soothing power," brings another highlight, the gracious lines of its outer section a supreme example of Boyce's ability to write instantly memorable tunes, while the contrasted central section broadens into a highly expressive climax. This recitative and aria, incidentally, elicit some of the most sensitive singing from Lea-Cox's countertenor/alto conjunction, although the voices of William Purefoy and Andrew Watts to my mind fail to provide the distinction of vocal timbre he was seeking. 

The greatest single asset of the performance is unquestionably the communication of Lea- Cox's evident commitment and love for this music to his performers. As with The Secular Ode, : there is a sense of burning missionary zeal here that far outweighs any minor imperfections and rough edges (both choir and orchestra have one or two less than tidy moments). The soloists are all } accomplished, with Michael George in splendidly stentorian form in his martial aria "The hero whom a fair one fires," and treble Patrick Burrowes singing the words of the saint with tonal security and confidence. The sound could ideally have been a little more open, but allows the performance to make its full impact, the final chorus being resplendently reproduced. For Boyceans this issue is likely to prove not just a joyous event but a revelation, unveiling as it does the full glory of a work hidden away from its potential admirers for two and half centuries. Bravo to all concerned with this brave venture.  

Fanfare September/October 2000