Making the case for Wagner-lite

My interview last year with James Blachly who masterminded the premiere recording of Ethel Smyth's The Prison reached a gratifyingly wide audience. So in view of this and of my early championing of female musicians, it is pleasing to see Dame Ethel's The Wreckers being staged at Glyndebourne next year. However I have previously expressed concerns about gender replacing merit in classical music. So, without questioning the undoubted merit of The Wreckers, I want to make the case for just one of the many meritorious works sunk by the social media wreckers.

Engelbert Humperdinck's masterful Wagner-inspired Hänsel und Gretel has won a place in the classical repertoire and in the hearts of many listeners, including the author's*. But another meritorious example of Wagner-lite has singularly failed to gain traction. Rutland Boughton's The Immortal Hour was premiered in a piano reduction at the very first Glastonbury festival in 1914. This powerful and original music drama is an engaging conflation of mysticism and magic; it was staged at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in 1921 and moved from there to the Regent Theatre in London's West End. (With that Birmingham connection surely the CBSO fan club could get behind Rutland Broughton, as well as all things Mirga.) 

Today, when the classical music industry is obsessed with audience size, it should be noted that The Immortal Hour ran for 216 consecutive performances starting in October 1922. It then ran for another 160 consecutive performances starting in 1923, with further major revivals in 1926 and 1932. And there is even a juicy click bait angle. Recently Slipped Disc readers revelled in the story of how, reportedly, a woman composer took a man's name to get played on the BBC. Well, The Immortal Hour can beat that hands down. Its libretto is adapted from the plays and poems of Fiona McLeod: that name was a secret alias of the Scottish writer William Sharp. Come on Norman, surely that could generate a few million extra readers if spun the right way.

Hyperion bravely recorded The Immortal Hour in 1983. That is my copy of the original double-LP release in the photo, and the recording was subsequently transferred to CD. Also recommended are Hyperion's discs of Boughton's Symphony No. 3 (persuasively conducted by Tod Handley) and of his orchestral miniatures. Just as Wagnerites have to endure agonies of boredom from Alberic, so The Immortal Hour can be slow to deliver. But its leitmotifs still send shivers up my spine. And that, for me, is the only measure of a composition's merit.

* It was good to hear Richard Farnes and the Orchestra of Opera North giving the Suite from Hänsel und Gretel a long-overdue airing on BBC Radio 3 recently. This precis by Gerard Schwarz does even more than send shivers up my spine every time I hear it. But to my knowledge there is only one recording of the Suite. This disc is a Testament reissue of a 1962 recording by Rudolf  Kempe and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra which couples the Suite with works by Dvořák and Smetana. Kempe was a great conductor whose recorded legacy is sadly neglected due to his reputation, and that of other great conductors, being tarnished by the click bait wreckers exploiting the inferred connection between these brilliant musicians and National Socialism.


Walter said…
I am one of those who believe that musical quality (merit) trumps gender, race, religion, or any other identity factor. There is so much great music that is totally neglected and largely unknown that to add identity factors into the evaluation of a composer's merit only muddies what is already a complex morass. That said, there is one female composer whom I would cite as representing the highest levels of musical expression: Lili Boulanger (1893-1918). If there is any factor that compromised the recognition of her greatness, it is her premature death at 25. Anyone who wishes to question my assertion is referred to her setting of the Psalm 130, "Du Fond de l'Abime."

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