Lost masterpieces from the attic

Robert Tucker scours the country in search of the forgotten gems of British choral music - and then performing them.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The trains down to Windsor tomorrow evening will carry a small but faithful band of pilgrims to an unlikely shrine, the School Hallof Eton College. This music-lovers' hadj is made in mid-September every year, the reward being a hearing of some of the forgottengems of British music, assiduously uncovered and brought back to life by a quietly spoken music- librarian called Robert Tucker.

The trains down to Windsor tomorrow evening will carry a small but faithful band of pilgrims to an unlikely shrine, the School Hallof Eton College. This music-lovers' hadj is made in mid-September every year, the reward being a hearing of some of the forgottengems of British music, assiduously uncovered and brought back to life by a quietly spoken music- librarian called Robert Tucker.

Tucker's crusade began, as so many of these things do, because he got fed up waiting for someone else to conduct the music that hewanted to hear, not least the early Elgar oratorio The Light of Life. In the late Sixties and early Seventies, unfashionable Elgar washardly the household phenomenon that he has since become; the major pieces were on record, but that was about it. And so in 1971,though Tucker, then 25, had never stood in front of an orchestra before, he got some singers and instrumentalists together and heardhis Elgar from closer quarters than he had ever previously imagined. That concert was intended as a one-off, but so many peopleasked him what he was going to do the next year that it set him thinking.

Since then, the Broadheath Singers and Windsor Sinfonia (Tucker's amateur chorus and ad-hoc professional orchestra) have rescuedfrom oblivion well over a hundred works, most of them unperformed since the early years of the century. Elgar, Parry and Stanfordhave been mainstays of the programmes, ceding ground as other musicians began to rediscover them; and Tucker's revival (in 1974and 1984) of two big works by Granville Bantock - Sea Wanderers (1906) and The Time Spirit (1902) - must have helped fuel thecritical reassessment of Bantock that is currently gaining momentum.

But the Broadheath agenda has always extended to composers with barely a toe-hold in the dictionaries - people like Alexander BrentSmith, Martin Shaw, Lilian Elkington, Eric Fogg, Inglis Gundry, Ernest MacMillan - names that the average classical-music buffwon't recognise, though they were prominent in a golden age of choral music at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20thcenturies, when all of England bristled with choirs, and composers and publishers did good business supplying a buoyant market withattractive, singable works.

Though each of two world wars did its bit to choke back the choral tradition, there are still plenty of local societies which would loveto sing this stuff. The trouble is that the music itself has often disappeared. Publishers have gone bust, been swallowed up or movedpremises, often junking the scores and parts that they thought no one would ever want to see again. As a result, not everything is readyfor revival. Many works survive only in the vocal scores the choristers would have sung from, where the orchestra is reduced to asimple piano outline. But Tucker doesn't let such obstacles get in the way of performance, through the simple expedient ofcommissioning re-orchestrations that allow the music to be heard again in something like its original form. Thus, for instance, hedrafted in composer Rodney Newton to rescue Ernest Farrar's The Blessed Damozel (1907) and Eric Fogg's The Hillside (1921), thefull scores of which had vanished from the face of the globe. It's an expensive solution, particularly since Tucker and his small bandof supporters operate on a shoestring, with grants and ticket sales rarely covering their costs, but he prefers to put the music first andworry about the money later.

His researches benefit from the active help of Lewis Foreman, not an academic musicologist but a hands-on activist who knows moreabout the missing music of this period than anyone else does. And their archaeology requires genuine fieldwork, as Tucker explains:"From time to time you'll get a rumour that somebody's attic probably contains such-and-such a piece, and you go looking for it. Butinvariably you don't find it - you find something else which is far more interesting. Lewis and I went down to search throughMontague Phillips's grandson's attic because we were looking for a full score of The Death of Admiral Blake. We didn't find it, butwe found a whole load of other stuff by him, with a full score and set of parts for his symphony. You just never know what you'regoing to find."

Tomorrow's concert offers three choral-and-orchestral pieces, inspired by the turn-of-the-century fashion for setting pre-Raphaelitepoetry. The most eagerly awaited item is the world premiere of The Lady of Shalott, for mezzo-soprano, chorus and orchestra, writtenin 1909 by Cyril Rootham (1875-1938). In 1995 Tucker conducted Rootham's 1915 war-elegy For the Fallen; when he took the partsback to the Rootham archive in St John's College, Cambridge, he came across the full score of The Lady of Shalott and read throughit. He couldn't understand why it hadn't been published or performed and he determined to put it on - and Rootham's grandson, whohas paid for the score and parts to be typeset on computer, will be singing in the chorus.

For Cecil Armstrong Gibbs's La Belle Dame sans Merci (1928), only half an orchestration was required: the string parts survive in theBritish Library, and instrumental cues in the piano part have helped the orchestrator William Llewellyn with the rest. Tucker describesthe music as "atmospheric, with some quite weird chords; very mysterious, and yet very approachable". Edgar Bainton's setting ofRossetti's The Blessed Damozel for soprano and baritone soloists, chorus and orchestra - written, like Farrar's, in 1907 - posed adifferent sort of problem. The full score and orchestral parts did exist, but in the inconvenient location of Sydney, so that microfilmshad to be sent from Australia. "Highly chromatic, very lush - and well worth doing," says Tucker of it.

The closest you get to the mainstream tomorrow evening is Holst's orchestral Elegy (In memoriam William Morris). It was originallythe slow movement of his "Cotswolds" Symphony, written exactly 100 years ago and just been released on CD by Classico. But forall the popularity of The Planets this, too, is an extreme rarity on the concert platform.

Tucker's philosophy for choosing the works he does is straightforward: "Although the composers may not be known, I always have todo music that is tuneful, singable and listenable-to. The chorus and I have got months to learn it and get it under our skin, but theaudience has only got one chance, so they've got to find it something memorable. And I've got to make at least one attempt to presentthese things, because I don't see anybody else doing it - nobody's bringing out the music of British composers born between 1848and 1910 on a regular basis except us."

The amount of music still to get a hearing is enormous: Tucker's efforts have uncovered only the tip of the iceberg. Foremancastigates the approach that other promoters take to such works: "People don't seem to want to perform them unless they aremasterpieces, but that's absolutely the wrong way of looking at it. They're all worth at least one performance, and until you've giventhem one performance, you can't assess them." So what works does he think ought to be heard next? "The big composer who reallydoes deserve a reassessment in performance is Walford Davies. And Havergal Brian's Cleopatra is a purple, Romantic choral work;the full score is gone, but it only needs re-orchestrating and would be really very good."

Time, moreover, is not standing still, as Foreman warns: "Even while Robert's been doing this, things have been disappearing left, rightand centre. And when sets of choral parts disappear, you're faced with such a large expense that you can't necessarily revive them." Inthe meantime, he can cast his mind back over Tucker's track record with evident satisfaction: "In all that time I don't think he has hadone serious dud."

Comments