ORFEO MAGAZINE (Florence, Italy), MAY 2001

Introduction to the Cover CD: 

The music featured on this month’s cover CD is of two important but neglected British composers both of whom will, undoubtedly, be unfamiliar to most readers.  Departing from usual practice of the magazine, the contents of the CD have been deliberately chosen to give listeners a coherent musical experience as well as an over-view of the works, rather than to concentrate on one particular work or the other.  Selected from the 3 CDs so far released by ASV in conductor Graham Lea-Cox’s Boyce Masterworks series with the Hanover Band, also featured is a fine symphony by Thomas Arne, from volume 1 of their new series of neglected British symphonies. 

William Boyce and Thomas Arne, English Masters.

 (Adapted from the sleeve and Conductor’s Notes to ASV Gaudeamus CDs: 176, 200, 208 & 216) 

It was in the highly competitive cultural life of 1730’s London that the twenty-something-year-old composers William Boyce (1711-1779) and Thomas Arne (1710-1778) set about establishing their reputations.  This was no easy task for either young man in the long shadow of one of the most famous and successful composers in Europe, George Frederick Handel, then in his prime in London.  Born a year apart and destined to die within a year of each other, both Arne and Boyce could easily have found the mighty genius of Handel an overwhelming influence.  Early on in their careers, however, both showed remarkable independence of musical thought, as the works recorded on these CDs demonstrate.  Listening to their music now, one is struck by the integrity of their styles, simultaneously eclectic, forward-looking and aware of the past.   As competitors and rivals on the London musical scene, they battled each other for work and commissions - and regularly treading on each other’s toes! - Arne the rake, drunkard and extrovert; Boyce the gentleman, cultured and beloved by many.

Arne and Boyce were the young rising stars of their time; both have been treated badly by history and the taste of succeeding generations, despite their one-time popularity and success.  Boyce in particular has suffered from neglect, often labelled as a composer “out-of-touch” with contemporary musical progress of his time – those musical innovations that swirled around the continent from Italy to Northern Europe and back.  The truth is that as a young man, he was as forward-looking and innovative as any.  Indeed Boyce introduced several novel orchestration effects long before they became common currency with other composers - his use, for example, of melodic lines coloured by Bassoons in unison with violins or violas.  Although his compositional style fell out of favour during his life-time with the fashion-conscious audiences of London, his late Court Odes (one of which, the Ode for the New Year of 1772, we have recorded for ASV, to be released in late 2001) demonstrate clearly that he remained in touch with the fast changing musical world about him, and its new ideas. 

Later 18th-century taste in England is a story of heated division between conservative and progressive – between the old (the ‘ancient’, i.e. Baroque) and the modern.  Certainly in the provinces there was a generally reactionary atmosphere amongst performers. As late as the 1760’s a young orchestral musician, the composer John Marsh, found considerable opposition to the introduction of the new-style symphonies of J C Bach and C F Abel, then becoming so popular in London.  In one provincial city, Portsmouth, he records in his diaries that most of the established players “did not like quitting Corelli”!  It was not only provincial taste, however, that found the ‘clamour’ of modern composition distasteful.  Sir John Hawkins, influential writer, politician, friend and devotee of William Boyce, famously quipped that ‘modern music’ “is constructed without art or elegance” and “awakens no passion; the general uproar of the modern symphony or overture neither engages attention nor interrupts conversation”.  

We have no record of what Sir John thought of the music of Thomas Arne, whose remarkable Symphony in C minor, heard on the cover CD of this issue, was published in 1769.  Arne was undeniably one of the major English composers of the period and notable particularly as a theatrical composer.  He, like Boyce, was experimenting in form and orchestration, although always more successful than his rival in the push-and-shove politics of the theatre. Unlike Boyce however, Arne’s Symphonies are more than mere overtures to stage works.  They show a clear awareness of the newly emerging musical forms popular on the continent, and yet retain an unmistakable and characteristic English flavour.   Arne’s genius was particularly for dramatic writing, combined with an equally extravagant gift for melody.  These qualities are all evident in this fine work, one of a group of four symphonies he published in 1767. 

Minor key symphonies at this time are rare, both on the Continent and in Britain; when composers did write them they invariably produced something out of the ordinary - here the fierce opening chords of the Moderato presage a movement whose strongly contrasted dynamics and thematic material have more to do with restless inner agitation than the dynamic energy of the influential Mannheimers.  The following Larghetto, its main theme solemnly intoned by the horns, maintains the air of seriousness only finally dissipated by the concluding, dance-like Vivace.  As with so many works of this period, the manuscript score of this symphony is lost, but sets of the 18th-century printed orchestral parts have, however, survived and are to be found in various national music collections in Britain.  The crucial flute parts of this symphony, however, are also lost and therefore have been reconstructed by conductor Graham Lea-Cox for this recording.

Boyce possessed equally felicitous melodic and dramatic gifts as Arne.  Although in later life scorned by the ‘progressives’, he was widely loved and respected in uncommon terms as a man and teacher; the number of mourners at his funeral in Westminster Abbey in 1779 attests to this.  He laboured, however, under an additional handicap.  His early career started with much promise - but then a childhood difficulty became more serious.  Imagine a young man in his early 20’s - a bright boy, ambitious, hugely talented and star pupil of the most senior musician at the Royal Court of England.  Now imagine a painter without clear vision, or a sculptor with one hand – or a musician without hearing.  William Boyce, brightest rising star in the English musical scene of the 1730’s and until recently a chorister at St. Paul’s Cathedral, that great new Basilica by Wren, was going deaf - and not slowly.  We cannot help wonder if this affliction ultimately played a significant part in leading him away from the audiences of the time, away from the empty politics of theatre and society and into a sort of reclusive artistic state.                                                                                          

Thus as time passed and fashion changed, Boyce’s musical language remained rooted in the past - in the Baroque.  This can perhaps best be explained partly through his nature, partly through circumstance and partly through a conservatism necessary in his position as Court composer to successive Kings, George II and III.  Neither of these Monarchs was noted for musically progressive tastes!  One senses that Boyce, realising the fickle nature of audiences in London, deliberately published his two collections of ‘Symphonies’ or ‘Overtures’ in 1760 and 1770 as a last defence against the turning tide of taste; fashion that was leaving him behind.  Most of these ‘symphonies’ are simply the overtures either to stage works or to his long series of Royal Odes, annual festive and celebratory works for orchestra, chorus and soloists composed for the Monarch in his position as Master of the King’s Musick.  

Boyce has been, until now, one of Britain’s most neglected composers.  To this day these symphony-overtures have remained the only works of his that are widely known - even though, in the opinion of several commentators, he is Britain’s greatest native-born High Baroque composer.   His music to our disgrace lies largely forgotten, yet still it leaps off the page with all the vigour and youthful freshness that brought audiences to their feet in London and Dublin over 250 years ago.  Now we have a chance to hear these works in their entirety – and to re-assess the status of this composer more intelligently.

© Graham Lea-Cox, Robert Bruce and Brian Robins, 2001 (adapted)