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Rawsthorne Biography reviews

Alan Rawsthorne: Portrait of a Composer by John McCabe.
Oxford University Press, £40

'It is my belief that the inner processes of music reveal themselves most readily to another sympathetic composer' - thus Robert Simpson at the beginning of The Essence of Bruckner, before going on to prove his point with a book that got closer to his music's musical soul than any writer before or since. John McCabe's 'portrait' of Alan Rawsthorne confirms Simpson's assertion on almost every page: lucky the composer whose music is received with such insight and understanding - with each new work McCabe alights upon, you are sent back to the music to listen to it again, to hear what you missed before he had pointed out what makes it tick. I have to confess that my admiration of Rawsthorne is partial: in many works he seems - to me, at any rate - to want to keep the listener at emotional arm's length, as do Arnold and Britten (and Stravinsky and, nearly, Bartók) in their entire œuvre. But when Rawsthorne gets the bit between his teeth, his music can have a bracing honesty that doesn't tolerate a hint of sentimentality. And John McCabe has convinced me that I would profit from returning to re-examine the scores that didn't always convince me first (even third) time around.

'McCabe's approach is the standard chronological one, tracing the evolution of the style against a biographical backdrop. He has a complete command of his subject, effortlessly perceiving detail in individual scores and relating them to Rawsthorne's larger output. Thus the 1937 Theme and Variations for two violins are seen to point forward to the Symphonic Studies of the following year, and the chromatic inclinations of both revealed as foreshadowing Rawsthorne's later adaptation of serialism - indeed, on the strength of these two pieces, one wonders why he took so long. McCabe is adept also at running his finger down the backbone of a score to give you a snapshot of its skeletal outline.

'What is particularly satisfying is his expert blend of description and analysis, so that, by the time he has finished walking you through a work, you know both what it must sound like and why it works. And when it doesn't work, McCabe says so: he is surprised, for example, that Rawsthorne 'showed so little insight into the brass band medium' on the occasion of the Suite of 1964; the last two movements, he continues, 'possibly because they are written in a more conventional brass band style and avoid augmented harmony to a greater extent, are considerably more idiomatic than the first two'. McCabe is, of course, a master of brass-band texture himself and in such throw-away lines one senses the composer in him assessing how well Rawsthorne used whatever medium happens to be under discussion at the time. Indeed, that's what gives McCabe's analyses their authority: he has his eye on the harmonic implications of minor events, on larger harmonic structures, on rhythm, on questions of instrumental colour and weight as if he were himself involved in its creation, patrolling and controlling the material as it evolves. Withal his tone is measured, not quite dispassionate - but his engagement with the music is plain in every paragraph.

'At xviii + 311 pages it's a bigger book than first strikes the eye. And there are no fewer than 85 music examples, some of them of considerable length, the generosity disguised with their being individually numbered per chapter. There's also what OUP calls a 'free CD', with 14 tracks from across Rawsthorne's output allowing the music to help point the text.'

© Martin Anderson, 2002. First published in Tempo and reproduced with permission

 

 

'... The biographical parts of the book take us from the composer's earliest years in the Lancashire countryside, through a surprisingly literary childhood, to, later, musical studies at the (as it then was) Royal Manchester College of Music, where he established some mildly Bohemian habits of living which he retained during his London and, briefer, Bristol years. But despite his image as a man about town, once he had become seriously involved with Isabel Lambert, he moved with her to a cottage near Thaxted in Essex, where he remained for the last eighteen years of his life.

'Rawsthorne's emotional vicissitudes McCabe handles with clarity and sympathy, while as for the music, he writes analytically, if briefly, about every single piece. In addition, he often manages to find apt and interesting contemporary comment from writers as diverse as Wilfrid Mellers and Herbert Howells, whose idiosyncratic yet favourable observations seem particularly charming and unexpected. From the point of view of entertainment, I felt the book's balance of biography and musical exegesis was tilted rather too heavily towards the latter, especially in the later chapters, though that may reflect an uneventful life at this stage. It was helpful that the volume comes with a CD of extracts. Reading analyses of music one has not heard can be a dispiriting business, however illuminating once the sounds are in place. Early in this review I complained that very good, yet not quite great, composers are liable to be neglected in our concert halls. Fortunately, though, the twentieth century brought in first the LP and then the CD. Rawsthorne was lucky, particularly later on, in that many of his works were recorded on LP in excellent performances. There are several new CDs available. Bringing the composer's tartly individual music to life (a bit like unsweetened lemon juice), they prove, too, an indispensable supplement to this sympathetic and thorough composer portrait.'

© Richard Drakeford, Musical Times, Summer 2000

 

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