26 peeks at the amazing music
of Geoffrey Bush
My selection of tracks
for a 100th anniversary
(first appearing as tweets through
the first 3 weeks of Advent 2020)
(Read the exclusive
music bio here!)
1/26 Collegium Magdalenae Oxoniensis: Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis
Let’s start with this bold, surprising, compelling pair of pieces for choir and organ: Mary's song on hearing what was to happen, and Simeon's song on holding the holy baby. The stark texture, melodic/harmonic strangeness, and declarative tone at the outset perfectly evokes (and invokes) its bewildering, world-changing scenario. Sung here by its dedicatee college - Magelen, Oxford.
2/26 Overture: Yorick
I had to include this early on in the series. It is so eloquent about the person of its composer.
"Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath
borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how
abhorred in my imagination it is!"
...The poignant role of the deceased jester Yorick, as Hamlet remembers him here, is a perfect analogue of Geoffrey Bush's music: Buoyancy and fun co-exist with tragedy. However, Bush's music is special for its miraculous fundamental balance, dignity, and elegy (elegy as opposed to the bitter writhing and sarcasm of a composer like Malcom Arnold (though I also love that)). It comes from a faith in the existence of goodness and salvation, however dissonant or disconcerting it can be at times, and whatever white-knuckle tension and dark valleys of of fear it explores. It's not an overt thing, it's just something spiritual at the heart of the music.
This and many other superbly crafted masterworks, were penned by Bush while still in his 20s - and some of them earlier. You are sure to enjoy the overture, performed here by Vernon Handley and the New Philharmonia Orchestra.
Spotify (album including both symphonies and Music for Orchestra)
And... I was amazed to find this 1949 newsreel clip about Bush dedicating this overture! From a time when such things made the news - imagine! (The music the orchestra is rehearsing in it is 18th-Century, not this.)
3/26 Divertimento for strings: second movement
This middle movement is haunting and bravely tenacious: a continuous development of a single wave-like motif, Bush never takes the easy option of ending at any of the points that would enforce an unnatural emotional lid on it. Instead, it keeps moving incrementally through variants of a wave-like phrase, from constricted and anguished cluster harmonies through subtly lyrical elegy, with ever more depth of emotion. Even after a crushingly bittersweet climax, the natural course of feeling is allowed time to play out. You will notice this is not the 'Light' music of the CD album's title (although the outer movements of the Divertimento are much more cheerfully playful).
Paul Conway's Music Web International review of the album says “Geoffrey Bush's three-movement Divertimento is much more serious in vein, as is immediately apparent from the more advanced harmonic language of the opening Deciso. The central Lento, ma non troppo is vibrant and passionate and reminds us what a sad loss to British music the death of this composer was in 1997."
4/26 Concerto for Light Orchestra
One of Bush's most perfectly crafted orchestral works, Concerto for Light Orchestra is a showpiece for any such ensemble to wish to play, and a suite in 6 movements all rivalling each other in brilliance, gentle elegiac power, sheer joy and shimmering orchestration. This is one of 'The' 20th-century concertos for orchestra: an answer to Ravel's Tombeau de Couperin as well as to Bartok's and Kodaly's dance suites, not to mention the English neoclassicism of Walton and the Poulencian touch of the outer movements. The English and Italian formal genres used, in answer to the standard Baroque dance movements, are favourites of Bush (appearing in numerous other masterworks such as Suite Champetre for piano) : Introduction and Toccata, Siciliana, Notturno, Hornpipe, Air, and Finale alla Giga.
5/26 Wind Quintet: first movement
A delicious experience. Skillful maintenance of clear texture, and instrumental writing that brings out the best. The first movement seemed the best example, with its inquisitive opening, its nimble, lithe musical argument, and its dark slyness. Amazing playing by the English Chamber Orchestra's wind ensemble. Do you like it?
Other music for wind quintet includes the 1982 'Pavans and Galliards' (score), which is unrecorded. Other pieces for wind ensemble include 'Air and Round-O' from 'Hommage to Matthew Locke,' in versions for wind quintet and for wind trio (featured on the present CD). Unrecorded works for winds with another instrument or voice include 'Fanfare And March: The Prince Of Morocco' for wind ensemble & percussion (score) and 'A Lover's Progress' for tenor, oboe, clarinet and bassoon. For both the latter and the Wind Quintet itself, the scores are available from Stainer & Bell here. Meanwhile the neoclassical Trio for oboe, piano and bassoon (score) is featured on the above recording with the composer at the piano, and has been recorded at least twice since then - a popular choice.
6/26 Farewell Earth’s Bliss (version for baritone and strings).
"These songs, hitherto virtually unsung, are certainly outstanding examples of their genre." (Songsforconnoisseurs.org.uk)
Can you listen to this last song and not be moved to tears?
...recorded by Martin Oxenham and the Bingham Quartet. This is also recorded with string orchestra by Stephen Varcoe and the City of London Sinfonia conducted by Richard Hickox, and the version for for piano and voice is recorded by Simon Wallfisch and Edward Rushton.
7/26 Mirabile Misterium (A Great and Mighty Wonder)
Song is at the heart of Geoffrey Bush's work. Working with singers (as accompanist and composer) throughout his life, and knowing exactly how to write for voice since early days as a chorister, he always returned to this genre for pure joy in-between larger projects and as a consolation when critical attention did not smile on his semi-conventional style. Bush's songs are gradually being recognised as not only an important part of this English 20th-Century genre but an outstanding and unique canon within it.
The previous item, 'Farewell Earth's Bliss,' is an exquisite example within the established way of writing such songs. By contrast, Mirabile misterium is very much outside-the-box: bold, stark, rawly emotional, and unaffectedly awe-struck in its contemplation of the gigantic mystery of God taking on the life and troubles of a human. The emotional challenge is to sing this in a way that doesn't only use Romantic expressivity but also a sense of invocation, worship, bewilderment and awe. Dark, non-tonal pieces with a hint of plainsong are juxtaposed with some gorgeous, lilting songs putting an ancient, folk-like verse to a folk-like melody and delicious harmonies and rhythm. They stay with you.
The texts comprise several languages - from Modern English to Old English, Latin and German. This cycle opens Susannah Fairbairn's and Matthew Schellhorn's album, heard complete or in part here:
8/26 In Praise of Mary
A thoroughly uplifting cantata - one movement in interlinked sections - setting the Magnificat for chorus, orchestra and organ (played here by the composer). 'Typical (...) of its composer, beautifully crafted so that it is as good to sing as it is to hear.' (http://wisemusicclassical.com/work/9360/In-Praise-of-Mary--Geoffrey-Bush)
9/26 The End of Love
"In the Kathleen Raine settings, The End of Love, [Bush] responded to the text with music that was ‘infused with a new archness, even sardonic bitterness’. Some of this music borders on the brutal: it is certainly shrouded in dark shadows” (J. France, Music Web International).
I almost can't isolate one of the movements from this spinetingling, pitchblack and utterly perfect set.
In No.3, we find: ‘If you go deep into the heart, what do you find there? Grief, grief! Grief for the life unlived, for the loves unloved, for the child never now to be born, for the unbidden anguish when the fair moon rises over still summer seas and the pale of sunlight scattered in vain on spring grass." "Knowing that all must end” is a theme central to a lot of English poetry. But this music is no gentle elegy. To be frank, it’s downright scary. Perfect composition and performances - both the available ones, with the words all clearly audible. Nothing can follow this.
The composer and Benjamin Luxon are thrilling and very sincere. For me their recording just-about has the upper edge, but is in VERY close competition with Simon Wallfisch and Edward Rushton. It's really interesting to compare. It's down to minute but tangible differences in tone.
Bush and Luxon: No.2 (Youtube)
or Spotify: All 4 incredible movements
Rushton and Wallfisch: Nr2 (Youtube)
Or the whole (Spotify)
10/26 Violin Sonata
The Steinberg Duo made the premiere recording of this intensely passionate, rhapsodic, through-composed sonata in 2017. It is programmed between Reizenstein's sonata (which is also absolutely exquisite) and one by Bush's mentor and friend, John Ireland.
11/26 'archy at the zoo'
"Every song a nugget of genius....lurching from utter joy and uphoria to intense sadness and feeling moved to tears (...) This music should be known more widely!"
These are the words of Suzanna Fairbairn, on 'probably' her favourite of the cycles and collections she recently recorded with Matthew Schellhorn in 2019.
Archy at the zoo is a hilarious, poignant and finely-honed menagerie of miniatures, which Fairbairn and Schellhorn execute extremely crisply and clearly:
Youtube has a live recital in chunks, but I'm not sure who the performers are.
12/26 A Little Love Music
Perfect pandemic repertoire? A perfect outdoor performance?
This is a unique cycle of duos and solos for solo soprano and tenor; no instruments. Ever heard anything like this?
This unusual combination could be hard to write for, but Geoffrey Bush brought it off perfectly: harmony and melody are worked together so naturally, lyrically and satisfyingly, in the solos as well as the duos, that it's a good listen all through. Teresa Cahill and Ian Partridge are the excellent performers here. This would make a very special event.
Try no. 2 on Youtube
Or all on Spotify
13/26 Music for Orchestra
A bold and rugged musical essay for orchestra: a 1-movement 'concerto for orchestra' including a prominent piano part.
One of the main themes (e.g. heard on trumpet punctuated by string rhythms) is a musical spelling of the name of Bush's tiny cottage in the hills above Aberystwyth, which he bought in order to teach summer schools at the Aberystwyth University's now-obsolete music department. After many years of running these, Bush was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Wales.
Whilst the existing recording of this great and unknown concert-piece is very
exciting and lively, a fresh, new, well-balanced one one ought to be made.
Here's a thrilling excerpt, well chosen from the middle:
The whole piece on Youtube
The whole piece on Spotify
14/26 Four Songs from Herrick’s Hesperides
This mischievous set, written for a loved one, has been very popular. It can be watched in filmed performance:
Full video on Youtube (different performers)
15/26 'Twas in the year that King Uzziah Died'
A stark and bold Advent carol, sung here by the choir of Worcester College, Oxford with Stephen Farr, organ
The score, as well as lots more loads more by the same composer, is available here.
So I put together links to several other Christmas-themed choral and vocal scores by Bush. Many of them still await their premiere recording, so prime untrammelled territory for recording singers!
Praise The Lord O My Soul (score £2.95) for choir and organ
The Holy Innocents' Carol (score £3.25) for unison voices, piano and optional percussion
Gabriel of High Degree (score just £1.95) for SATB
Daystar In Winter (score £4.95) for soli, SATB and organ
‘Yesterday' is an absolutely superlative and very moving cycle. Perhaps you agree it turns very simple rhymes into very serious and profound music?
17/26 Lord Arthur Savile's Crime
The only-yet-recorded opera is a glittering delight: Lord Arthur Saville's Crime
(text by the composer after Wilde's short story).
For a taster... How about 'the Anarchist' in this section (Youtube)
There are two Music Web International reviews. Paul Corfield Godfrey's observes:
'Much of the music is genuinely funny in its own right, including the chorale prelude on Nun danket which provides the transition into the final scene and echoes the last phrase of the preceding duet “May the Lord make him truly thankful”. Real black humour, this. Bush cleverly rings the changes between recitative and arioso to allow Wilde’s epigrams to make their full effect, and his abridgement of the action condensing the whole into a mere three locations is effective almost in spite of itself.'
And John France's review is here. It's very discerning and thoughtful.
18/26 Symphony Nr.1: second movement
The central 'Elegiac Blues' of Geoffrey Bush's first symphony is a must-hear. Marked 'con malinconia,' it's a just-right, said-happy, very moving tribute to the memory of Constant Lambert.
Here is this second movement on Youtube
This is a really excellent symphony. It's been untouched for decades. Orchestras enjoy playing Bush's work, always created with understanding, craft and joy.
Here is the whole symphony on Youtube
Here is the whole symphony on Spotify
19/26 Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings
Lithe, eloquent & jazzy. Elements of dialogue, recitative, candnza, toccata and song make up the first movement, and to some extent the last. The central movement is a stunning nocturne - moving, touching, thrilling, bluesy. .
This originated in a sonata for piano and trumpet, and currently the full score of the concerto can't be found anywhere online. It's registered with PRS, but they don't say who publishes it. Where can the score be found? (As opposed to the version with pianor reduction.)
The thrilling existing recording was made live in concert:
20/26 Two Stevie Smith Songs
Simply a joy. As so often, they combine humour with really interesting music.
Here is the brilliant gem 'My Cats,' the second song -
- and here is the pair of them on Spotify.
21/26 Five Medieval Lyrics
This is very profound and compelling music.
No.2, 'Confession' (Youtube)
No.3, 'Carol' (Youtube)
...but hearing all 5 (Spotify) can't be too highly recommended.
22/26 A Christmas Cantata
23/26 Trumpet March (for organ)
24/26 Consort Music (Six Victorian Sketches for strings) : Cradle Song
25/26 Natus est Immanuel
26/26 Make We Merry