English Music for Strings, Volume 2


Contributing outstanding works for strings was a particular attribute of British composers during the twentieth century, especially prior to World War II. Elgar led the way with his Introduction and Allegro, in 1905; Vaughan Williams followed five years later with his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. Howells, finding kinship with both composers, finished his Concerto for String Orchestra in 1938, in a decade which witnessed other string masterworks by Britten, Bliss, and Lennox Berkeley (CHSA 5293), as well as Tippett. Although Delius did not compose a major work for the configuration, an arrangement for strings of ‘Late Swallows’, the slow movement of the String Quartet of 1916 – 17, made by his amanuensis, Eric Fenby, added a quintessential Delian work to the string orchestra repertoire.


Elgar: Introduction and Allegro, Op. 47

It was his friend and advocate at Novello’s, August Jaeger (‘Nimrod’ of the ‘Enigma’ Variations), who in 1904 had sown the seeds in Edward Elgar (1857 – 1934) for the Introduction and Allegro after the recently established London Symphony Orchestra had requested a new work from the composer. Jaeger proposed,

Why not a brilliant quick String Scherzo, or something for those fine strings only? a real bring down the House torrent of a thing such as Bach could write.[1]

Elgar took his cue from this suggestion, scoring the work for a solo quartet, contrasted by the tutti body of strings, thereby recalling the eighteenth-century concerto grosso. A further baroque link is the admiration which Elgar expressed for Handel, as Herbert Howells recalled when he ventured to pose a question to the older composer:

‘Is there hope of ever acquiring the sheer sonority of string-writing, that is yours?’ His answer, after a shortish silence: ‘Yes. Study George Frederik... now and all your life.’ Handel was Elgar’s god in this matter.[2]

Begun in 1904 and finished in February 1905, the Introduction and Allegro was first performed, by the London Symphony Orchestra, on 8 March 1905, at the Queen’s Hall, London, conducted by its composer. Elgar dedicated it: ‘To his friend Professor S.S. Sanford, Yale University, U.S.A.’[3]

Elgar created the work around four utterly memorable ideas, the first three appearing in quick succession starting with a thrilling gust of sonorous sound. The second, scored for the quartet, soars with increasing urgency on the first violin; Elgar characterised it on the manuscript, quoting from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, as ‘Smiling with a sigh’. As the theme curves downwards, the softly surging arch of the bass line provides the third strand.

At the heart of the work, though, is the fourth theme, riven with an aching melancholy and introduced tenderly by solo viola. It was sketched on a Welsh holiday in 1901, after Elgar had heard a choir singing afar off, then 

forgotten until... it was brought to my mind by hearing, far down our own Valley of the Wye, a song similar... The singer of the Wye unknowingly reminded me of my sketch... Although there may be (and hope there is) a Welsh feeling in the one theme – to quote Shakespeare... ‘All the waters in Wye cannot wash the Welsh blood out of its body’ – the work is really a tribute to that sweet borderland where I have made my home.[4]

The Allegro section elaborates the second theme, and an energetic dialogue ensues between the quartet and the rest of the strings, with rapid semiquaver ‘scrubbing’, reaching a culminating return of the opening flourish. As the music softens, the quartet takes up the ‘Welsh’ theme against tremolando and pizzicato strings. For the central section of the Allegro, rather than write a development, Elgar composed ‘a devil of a fugue... with all sorts of japes & counterpoint’, as he perfectly described it to Jaeger. After the cut and thrust of its contrapuntal wizardry, the fugue peters out and leads back to the Allegro. In the coda, the ‘Welsh’ tune returns, crowning the work in its most majestic guise, before a headlong dash to the finish: a resounding pizzicato chord.


Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis

With the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, composed in 1910, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872 – 1958) established himself indisputably as a major and distinctive voice in English music. Here the influences that forged his personal idiom – folksong, modality, and the glories of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century-English composers – were moulded together in their first full maturity.

He found the basis for his form in the seventeenth-century ‘fancy’, or ‘fantasia’, and for his theme he returned to the melody that Tallis had written, in 1567, for Archbishop Parker’s metrical Psalter, beginning with the words ‘Why fumeth in fight’, a tune which Vaughan Williams had already incorporated as No. 92 of The English Hymnal (1906). While in the process of composing the work, for the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival, he bore in mind another heritage, namely the city’s magnificent cathedral; he wished to exploit its acoustic and space in the scoring of the Fantasia and did so to brilliant effect: string quartet and double string orchestra, the second, a smaller ensemble, ideally placed apart from the first so that the antiphonal exchanges are more audible.

At the first performance, on 6 September 1910, the Fantasia preceded The Dream of Gerontius conducted by Elgar. As in the case of many premières (then as now) the audience was waiting impatiently for the familiar work. Few of the more than 2000 people gathered in the cathedral would have known much about Vaughan Williams. As Herbert Howells (then on the cusp of eighteen) recalled,

He was thirty-nine [actually, not yet thirty-eight], magisterial, dark-haired, clear-cut of feature... there at the rostrum towered the unfamiliar magnificent figure. He and a strangely-new work for strings were interposed between them [the audience] and their devotion to Elgar.[5]

The spacious character of the Fantasia is established by its five hushed opening chords. Hints of the psalm tune follow, pizzicato, on lower strings, alternating with an oscillating chordal pattern which subsequently becomes a significant building block. The lambent tune, in the Phrygian mode – which Tallis had embedded in a texture of four voices but which Vaughan Williams harmonised in nine parts – is played by both orchestras. The antiphonal divide between them established, the two orchestras ruminate, as if in dialogue, on different aspects of the theme. With a slight quickening of tempo, the solo viola plays a new, rhapsodic melody, although its provenance in Tallis’s theme is audible.

The viola theme and the swaying chords prominent, Vaughan Williams continues to draw inspiration from Tallis’s tune, in the process creating a glorious swathe of sound. Simultaneously, and akin to an Elizabethan motet, this propels the music forwards, to reach a quasi-declamatory climax. Tallis’s tune returns as a rapt duo between violin and viola, set against tremolo strings played over the fingerboard. Following the final ascent of the solo violin, the Fantasia ends on a widely spaced fortissimo chord as massive as the Norman pillars that carry the nave of Gloucester Cathedral. It hangs suspended, then fades to pppp and silence.

For Howells and his friend and fellow student Ivor Gurney, it was the new work that spoke more directly to them, its language a revelation. Overnight the composer of the Fantasia became the musical leader of their generation. So profound was the impression that neither attempted to sleep after hearing it; both were so excited that they wandered around the streets of Gloucester all night in animated conversation. Herbert Brewer, however, their teacher and the cathedral’s organist, was not so moved, describing the Fantasia as ‘a queer mad work by an odd fellow from Chelsea’.


Delius, arranged Fenby: Late Swallows

The years encompassing World War I were a period of upheaval for Frederick Delius (1862 – 1934) and his wife, Jelka, who were forced to flee their home at Grez-sur-Loing, near Fontainebleau, several times. By November 1914, the advance of the German armed forces deep into France had precipitated a year-long absence, but after their return, Delius composed his String Quartet, in the spring of 1916, giving its slow movement the title ‘Late Swallows’. Substantial revision took place in 1917, including the addition of another movement, and Delius mentions in correspondence that year that the Quartet was performed in Paris in May, although further details are scant. The London String Quartet (who in 1916 had given the première of the original version of the Quartet) gave the first British performance of the definitive work, on 10 February 1919, at the Aeolian Hall, London. In 1962, to mark the centenary of Delius’s birth, Sir John Barbirolli proposed that ‘Late Swallows’ be arranged for strings, a task which fell, naturally, to the expert hands of Eric Fenby (1906 – 1997). This version was published in 1963, but information about its first performance is currently unknown.

Fenby described ‘Late Swallows’ as

a beautiful autumnal soliloquy in sound conjured up by thoughts of the swallows darting to and fro from the eaves of the house and studios at Grez.[6]

He also recalled Jelka Delius telling him, ‘When we were away from home, Fred missed the swallows most’, Fenby adding, ‘and I well remember his “Tell me, lad, are the swallows late this year?”’.[7]

Delius cast the movement in a ternary structure, Fenby, in his arrangement, scoring the string parts, apart from the double-basses,  divisi virtually throughout in order to create a mellow texture consonant with the music’s seasonal context. The opening and closing sections are derived from the wistful melody of the first violins heard at the start, which, as it becomes more florid, seems to evoke the swoop and soaring of swallows in flight. Fenby noted that Delius based the central interlude around a melody from his opera Koanga (1895 – 97), its music influenced by the songs of the black plantation workers he had heard during his seminal sojourn in Florida as a young man. The strings are muted throughout this section, Delius marking it to be played ‘with a waving movement’, which is perfectly matched by the undulating ostinato-like figure, shared initially among the first violins. A solo violin introduces the Koanga theme, and the interlude concludes with a sequence of mysterious chords, Fenby reducing the scoring to single desks.

‘Late Swallows’ is one of those works by Delius in which his response to the sights and sounds of the natural world captures some fleeting, atavistic vision of beauty. How true was his insight when Fenby commented, ‘In the best of Delius we are made one with Nature’.[8]


Howells: Concerto for String Orchestra

Compared to that of the other composers represented on this recording, the music of Herbert Howells (1892 – 1983) is a rarity in terms of the concert hall, yet he wrote splendid and significant works for orchestra, choir, chamber ensemble, and instruments and voice. Following his years of teenage pupillage at Gloucester Cathedral with Herbert Brewer, from 1912 to 1916 he studied with Sir Charles Villiers Stanford and Charles Wood, at the Royal College of Music. Apart from composing, he was active in the fields of teaching and adjudicating: he taught at the RCM for over forty years, succeeded Holst as director of music at St Paul’s Girls’ School, and was King Edward VII Professor of Music at the University of London.

Howells is still primarily known for his large body of Anglican church music, arguably the finest by any twentieth-century British composer, exemplified by his canticle settings Collegium Regale (1944), written for King’s College, Cambridge. Among orchestral works are two piano concertos (1913, 1925), the Elegy for viola, string quartet, and strings (1917), the Fantasia for cello and orchestra (1936 – 37), and the Concerto for String Orchestra (1938). Chamber works include the Piano Quartet (1916) and the string quartet In Gloucestershire (1916 – c. 1935). His mastery of large-scale choral and orchestral forces found expression in Hymnus Paradisi (1938, revised 1950), Missa Sabrinensis (1954), and the Stabat Mater (1963 – 65). On a smaller scale, the Requiem (1932) and the motet Take him, Earth, for cherishing, in memory of President Kennedy (1964), rank high among his achievements. Howells also made a substantial contribution to organ literature with works such as Master Tallis’s Testament (1940) and wrote songs (primarily settings of poetry by his friend Walter de la Mare), among them King David (1919). He even composed pieces for clavichord; in Howells’ Clavichord (1941 – 61) the pieces are dedicated to friends, its titles wittily evoking the manner of Tudor composers, for example ‘Ralph’s Galliard’ and ‘Boult’s Brangill’.

In 1943 Howells was invited by the BBC to give a talk during the interval of a concert by the Boyd Neel String Orchestra. His topic, appropriately, was ‘music for strings’, and in it he referred to

the immemorial cantabile of violins, violas and ’cellos... strings were born to sing – rightly, passionately, simply, or liltingly.[9]

These qualities are evident in his own Concerto for String Orchestra, as are traits inherited from the potent, but benevolent, figures of Elgar and Vaughan Williams. Apart from the Tallis Fantasia, which had made such a deep impact on him, Howells recalled in a conversation with Michael Kennedy (the biographer of Elgar and Vaughan Williams) that

a few weeks later I heard the Introduction and Allegro for Strings. For me, those were two intensely timely, kindling, formative experiences – as well they might be for any teenager already instinctively searching for what he could later call the power and beauty of strings in consort.[10]

Howells also told Kennedy that in his concerto he strove to achieve,

if I could ever hope to reach it... a unity of the two supreme fellow-English composers many of us have seen and known in our own time.[11]

Howells had begun the work as a tribute to Elgar in the wake of the latter’s death, in 1934. In the following year Howells suffered a terrible personal loss, one that would affect him for the rest of his life, the death of his nine-year-old son, Michael. Consequently, the concerto’s middle movement bore the dedication ‘In Memoriam: E.E. (1934) and M.K.H. (1935)’. Although it was completed in 1938, Howells returned to the score many times; his last thoughts on the work were contained in the version published in 1985. The Concerto for String Orchestra was first performed, by the BBC Orchestra (Section B), in a studio broadcast on 16 December 1938, conducted by its dedicatee, Sir Adrian Boult. The first public performance followed on 30 January 1940, at the Aeolian Hall, London, given by Boyd Neel and his Orchestra. Thereafter the work languished until Boult revived it, with the Hallé Orchestra on 6 December 1973, and with the London Philharmonic Orchestra on 4 April the next year, prior to its first recording, made by the same forces.

The key word to describe the work is ‘concerto’, as it is first and foremost a bravura composition, challenging for all its executants. Its structure recalls both the concerto grosso character of the Introduction and Allegro and the dynamic between different string groupings of the Tallis Fantasia. Evident, too, in the outer movements, is the influence of the eighteenth-century instrumental fantasy, or phantasy, reflecting the efforts of Walter Willson Cobbett (1847 – 1937) to revitalise a form in which several unrelated, but varied, sections provided the basis for an extended work. Cobbett established a prize for chamber works in one movement adopting the form, Howells winning it in 1918 with his Phantasy String Quartet.

Describing the concerto to the Radio Times on the occasion of its première, Howells offered a further clue to the genesis of the slow movement:

it was inspired by the countryside between the Malverns and the Cotswolds, and by two people – one old and one young – who knew and loved that part of England.[12]

He was of course alluding to Elgar and Michael.

Howells explained that the first movement of the concerto was ‘determined by the nature of the already completed slow movement’,[13] hence music of animated energy was required. Utilising thematic ideas from the first movement of his unpublished Suite for Strings (1917), Howells binds it together by means of the opening six pesante chords; a tiny obsessive three-note rhythm which starts the main theme that follows on the first violins; and the frequent interjections of a solo viola. Characteristic, too, is the way in which Howells drives the music’s progress by means of a combination of lithe, linear counterpoint and constant subtle variation of the thematic material. Contrast is achieved in a passage which brings the sonority of a string quartet to the fore, and also in a slower section, marked Lento doloroso, in which, against the viola’s soliloquy, the string writing expands to nine parts.

Howells wrote that the second movement, 

Submissive and memorial in its intention and purpose, begins in fragile terms – a solo trio’s statement of the main theme. Elegiac as always, its concern technically is with the interplay of soli and tutti.[14]

The tender theme itself has veiled allusions to the slow movement of Elgar’s First Symphony, its poignant threnody making play with affecting intervals of a seventh and becoming a colloquy of the solo trio, until this unites with all the strings for an impassioned climax. A stabbing gesture of grief, marked dolente, leads to a sequence of pizzicato chords and a placid return of the main theme. Following a new theme, suffused with comforting balm, heard on divisi first violins, the movement gradually dies away, concluding with two peaceful unison chords.

For Howells, ‘Pace and melodic rhythms’ were the ‘mainly expected priorities’[15] in his finale, as witnessed by its overall quality of leaping athleticism. Again, the presence of the solo viola provides continuity with previous movements, and the rapid succession of new ideas heightens the connection to phantasy form. For example, there is a breezy semiquaver figure for the string quartet, echoing a moment in Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, a spirited folksong-like theme for the violins, which provides an episode of jocularity, and an extended contrapuntal passage played pizzicato. Towards the conclusion, as the tempo slows to Lento, dolente ma dolce, forlorn reminiscences of the second movement appear, before a swift, vigorous coda.


© 2023 Andrew Burn

[1] A.J. Jaeger to E. Elgar, 28 October 1904. Quoted in J.N. Moore, Edward Elgar: A Creative Life (Oxford University Press, 1984).

[2] Quoted in the programme note by Michael Kennedy on Howells’s Concerto for String Orchestra, Hallé

Orchestra, 6 December 1973.

[3] Samuel Sanford, Professor of Piano at Yale University, admired the music of Elgar and as a gift purchased a Steinway upright piano for the study at the composer’s Hereford home, ‘Plas Gwyn’.

[4] E. Elgar, Programme note for the first performance, 8 March 1905.

[5] H. Howells, Obituary of R. Vaughan Williams, The

Sunday Times, 31 August 1958.

[6] E. Fenby, Sleeve note, Music of Frederick Delius, Hallé Orchestra, J. Barbirolli, EMI Records, 1969.

[7] E. Fenby, Programme note, Bradford Delius Centenary Festival, 1962.

[8] E. Fenby, Sleeve note, Delius Tone Poems, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, T. Beecham, HMV, 1958.

[9] ‘During the interval Herbert Howells speaks about music for strings’, Radio Times, 22 May 1943.

[10] M. Kennedy, Programme note, Hallé Orchestra, 6 December 1973.

[11] Ibid.

[12] ‘Six Special Concerts (First Season – 3. British Composers)’, Radio Times, 16 December 1938.

[13] H. Howells, Programme note, London Philharmonic Orchestra, 4 April 1974.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

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