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ClassicsOnline Home » CURZON: In Malaga / Robin Hood / Punchinello
Frederic Curzon (1899-1973)
"I can certainly subscribe to the suggestion that the marked degree of modesty shown by Frederic Curzon in respect of his own abilities and musicianship amounted to almost diffidence. Perhaps an innocence of the true value of one's abilities and skills, in any field of creative art, is an essential ingredient in the production of excellence".
In one brief paragraph, Donald Curzon seems to have summed up the essential character of his stepfather, Frederic Curzon, one of the least known and most underestimated of all major British composers of light music. Much liked and greatly respected by fellow musicians during his lifetime, little was known about him even by his closest friends. He was born Ernest Frederic Curzon on September 4, 1899 in London and received a private education. Musical talent manifested itself at an early age and he surprised and delighted his teachers by showing considerable ability on no less than four instruments - violin, cello, piano and organ. He was only 12 when he produced a setting of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis which was performed by a local choir. His artistic development continued apace throughout his teens and at the age of 16, he was able to secure the job of pianist in a London theatre orchestra. By the time he was 20, he had his own orchestra and he was also writing music to accompany silent films.
But it was as an organist that he duly decided to concentrate his energies and for some twenty years, he travelled the length and breadth of Britain playing in countless halls, theatres and auditoriums. He was among the first exponents of the electronic organ when it was introduced into the country, giving many demonstration recitals. From 1926 onwards, he managed to combine all this activity with the permanent post of organist of the Shepherd's Bush Pavilion, where he succeeded the celebrated Quentin Maclean. His employer was the Gaumont British Film Corporation whose Musical Director, Louis Levy, provided him with the occasional writing commission. Over the years, composition gradually came to occupy more and more of his time as he progressed from relatively simple silent film accompaniments to more ambitious sound picture scores, especially music for documentaries.
He also began to write in other genres as well and received early encouragement from such influential figures as Sir Dan Godfrey, principal conductor of the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra, and Ralph Hawkes of the publishing firm Boosey & Hawkes. The former programmed many of Curzon's works in his orchestra's concerts and often invited the composer to conduct them himself, while the latter arranged for many of his scores to appear in print. These reassuring factors obviously raised the possibility of pursuing a full-time career as a composer but the reticent Curzon needed further persuasion before taking such a step. He duly found it in the person of Gladys Marian Fowler whom he married in late 1937. She had the utmost faith in her husband's abilities and with her support and backing, Curzon finally left the security of salaried employment in 1938 (he had been organist at the new Victoria Cinema for four years following eight at the Shepherd's Bush Pavilion) and launched out on his own. He did not abandon the world of the organ entirely, however, for over the next twenty years or so, he was often to be heard on the radio, drawing many splendid sounds out of the BBC Theatre Organ.
The rest of his life was, for the most part, devoted entirely to composition and the list of his works, some written under the noms de plume Graham Collett and Harold Ramsay, is truly astonishing, both in size and in scope. At one end of the musical spectrum can be found orchestral suites, concert overtures, pieces for piano and orchestra, and so on. At the other end lie humoresques, which he wrote monthly for Tommy Handley to perform in the celebrated BBC radio series ITMA, a burlesque opera and a pantomime. In between come a number of fanfares, written for occasions such as the Royal Tournament, London's big annual military jamboree, and the 1951 Festival of Britain. There is a huge range of 'mood music' as well as scores for radio and television. He was, without doubt, extraordinarily prolific although composition didn't always come easily to him. And yet, he found time to serve as President of the Light Music Society and, for some years, was Head of Boosey & Hawkes' Light Music Department.
He eventually went to live by the sea in Bournemouth, the town that had given so much encouragement to his music in the early years and it was there that he died on December 6, 1973 at the age of 74. An obituary by Bassett Silver, one-time Manager of the Recorded Background Music Library at Boosey & Hawkes - who, as it happened, died only about four months after Frederic Curzon - summed up the composer thus: "His gift for pure melody was very exceptional and his orchestral scoring, always fresh and effective, never showed signs of striving to be original ... He was a classic among English light music composers."
The Boulevardier: Undoubtedly Frederic Curzon's best-known piece, this delightful Characteristic Intermezzo first appeared in 1941. It is a superbly crafted miniature which wonderfully manages to capture the elegant swagger and sophisticated demeanour of the man-about-town as he strolls self-assuredly along the Parisian thoroughfares. The steady tread of the no-doubt spats-bedecked footwear sets the scene perfectly for the coolly-poised main theme which subsequently reveals an unexpected suitability for canonic treatment. The slightly more flamboyant middle section ensures that appearances are maintained throughout, with occasional hints of the 'walking' motif emerging from time to time. It all adds up to a very clever piece of writing - the hallmark of a skilled composer.
Miniature Overture: Punchinello: This short, exuberant little concert overture, dating from 1948, was dedicated to Rae Jenkins (1903-1985), the Welsh-born conductor who played so many of the composer's works on the radio, thus bringing Curzon's name to the attention of untold millions.
The title comes from the name of a character in an Italian burlesque pantomime, the obvious ancestor of the English Punch, and Curzon accordingly concentrates primarily on the buffoonery aspect. The cheeky, perky opening theme captures the puppet's high spirits as do the busy string figurations that constitute the second principal idea. The woodwind then chip in with a playful phrase before the five short, sharp chords with which the work began return to herald a brief development section involving both main subjects. New material then makes an appearance, all adding to the overall aura of good-natured ebullience and vitality. And yet, the whole thing takes barely three minutes, demonstrating how much incident a master miniaturist can fit into a short space of time.
Spanish Suite: In Malaga:
1. Spanish Ladies (Tango)
2. Serenade to Eulalie
Frederic Curzon dedicated this charming little suite to the man he succeeded as organist at the Shepherd's Bush Pavilion, Quentin Maclean. The printed score appeared in 1935 although, as with so many of his works, it is extremely difficult to provide a precise period of composition as Curzon tended not to date his manuscripts and there was often quite an extensive period between conception and publication. He seems to have been fascinated by Spain - as witness the four Iberian-inspired pieces on this record, not to mention several other items, occasionally written under the suitably flamboyant pseudonym of José Jordana - but he never actually got around to visiting the country! Donald Curzon recalls that his stepfather's skill at evoking the appropriate national atmosphere elicited a letter from Spain asking if the composer was of Spanish birth or had, at the very least, lived and worked in the country. The enquirer apparently was quite convinced that only a native Spaniard or someone with considerable direct experience of Spain could possibly write such 'authentic' sounding music!
The first movement is entitled Spanish Ladies. Stern dotted rhythms at the very outset suggest that these particular senoritas might be rather formidable creatures, but the arrival of the main tango theme, with its suggestion of mid-day indolence, soon portrays a different image. The scoring on the whole is light and delicate, with just eight bars towards the end calling on all the orchestral resources.
Delicacy of touch also prevails in the Serenade to Eulalie. The identity of this lady remains a secret although Donald Curzon suspects that his stepfather may well have had the delightful personality of his wife-to-be in mind. A gently undulating solo viola ushers in a simple, appealing theme which is introduced by a flute before passing to a clarinet. An equally attractive, Mediterranean-tinged melody then emerges in the violins and soon proves to be the more important idea. Throughout, the spirit, if not the metre, of the tango seems to be in attendance.
The Cachucha, originally an Andalusian dance, manages to strike a happy balance between a sturdy triple-time rhythm, albeit occasionally sprinkled with syncopations, and a gracefulness of melodic expression. The scoring is at its fullest in this movement, with splashes of tambourine lending appropriate colour here and there.
Dance of an Ostracised Imp: One of the wittiest and most appealing of all Curzon's works, it dates, in fact, from the darkest days of World War II, 1940, and may be seen as a welcome antidote to the grimness of those times. The melody is a little gem, ascending in a normal manner but coming back down via whimsical chromatic by-ways. Curious harmonic relationships underline most of the piece and the second part of the middle section indulges in at times positively Vaughan Williams-like modulations. Where the title came from is anyone's guess although it seems that Curzon may simply have been following Ravel's example with Pavane pour une infante défunte - he just liked the sound of it!
Saltarello: One of the composer's more curious compositions, this showpiece for piano and orchestra was written during 1951 and published in 1952. A year or so earlier, Curzon had been commissioned to prepare a slightly more fully orchestrated version of the now-famous Scherzo from Litolff's Concerto Symphonique No. 4 for Moura Lympany to play, and it may well be that this experience encouraged him to try his hand at an original work for the same medium and in not dissimilar vein. In truth, it is not really a saltarello, which should properly be in 3/4 or 6/8; not 12/8 as is the case here. In character, it should be of a 'jumping' or 'hopping' nature whereas this example is much more earthbound and not so obviously dance-like. The overriding impression is of a set of Czerny studies being given sporadic, albeit quite powerful, orchestral support.
Capricante: Another venture into Iberian territory, this Spanish Caprice appeared in 1949 with a dedication to Pasquale Troise of "Troise and His Mandoliers/Banjoliers/Novelty Orchestra" fame. Curzon probably met the dedicatee during the 1930s as both the Shepherd's Bush Pavilion and the New Victoria Cinema, in addition to showing films, also put on variety shows, and Pasquale Troise and his Ensemble were familiar figures on the entertainment circuit. Certainly Curzon and Troise kept in touch with one another down the years and had great respect for each other's music-making.
Capricante contains more overtly 'popular' Spanish touches than In Malaga, including an opening and closing section that seems to take its cue from Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio Espagnol. Curzon's love of modal inflections is also in evidence as well as his predilection for the occasional rhythmic hiccup.
Galavant: Written around 1949/50, this amiable piece is absolutely typical of so many scores written during the Forties and Fifties for publishing companies' 'Mood Music' libraries. Galavant (or Gallivant) means "to roam about capriciously, as in looking for diversion", and that admirably sums up the atmosphere of this unassuming little work. It is cast in the standard ABA format.
Pasquinade: A 1943 composition, its utterly charming, old-world - at times, almost eighteenth-century - character totally belies its title, which means an abusive or coarse personal satire posted in a public place! The main tunes bear eloquent testimony to Curzon's pleasantly melodic gift as well as his flair for finding just the right orchestral touches to enhance his thematic ideas.
Simonetta: The great violinist Alfredo Campoli was the dedicatee of this Serenade, one of Curzon's earliest orchestral works, dating from 1933. As with Pasquale Troise, the composer almost certainly met Campoli on the Shepherd's Bush Pavilion/New Victoria Cinema 'circuit', although no firm friendship developed as with the former. Simple, charming and unassuming, it appeals through the slightly wistful nature of its main themes. The cultured gentility conjures up images of tea-shops and hotel salons of a bygone era and later on, there is a distinct recollection of a Palm Court Trio.
Cascade: This splendid, full-blooded, no-nonsense piece was written in 1946. It is an English waltz fashioned after the style of Archibald Joyce and Charles Ancliffe rather than Eric Coates whose very fast tempo 3/4 creations were, on the composer's own admission, not intended for dancing. Cascade, on the other hand, would provide the perfect accompaniment to a grand, glitzy, social ball. And yet, for all the grandeur of sound, Curzon does not expand his usual instrumentation and relies on a line-up of single flute, oboe and bassoon, two each of clarinets, horns and trumpets, three trombones, percussion and strings.
La Peineta: Back we go to Spain for this Spanish Serenade, but this time, it is the quieter, more introspective side of the national character that is in evidence. The nostalgic main theme is presented in the plaintive tones of a solo cello, before the violins take over the leading role. The mode switches from the minor to the major for the middle section, but the aural impression is still that of the minor mode as the mood of wistfulness continues uninterrupted. The composer himself explained that La Peineta "is a high comb worn on the head of a Spanish woman in National Costume", but this exquisite and rather evocative piece certainly seems to be more than a mere description of a senorita's hair accessory!
Robin Hood: Suite:
1. In Sherwood
2. Maid Marian
3. March of the Bowmen
Dedicated to 'Marian', his wife, this fine three-movement suite appeared in 1937, the year of Curzon's marriage. Donald Curzon has no hesitation in regarding this work as a turning point in his stepfather's career, and considers it a 'bench-mark' for all that was to follow. Named after the legendary - or, as some scholars would have it, not so legendary - outlaw who inhabited Nottinghamshire's Sherwood Forest in medieval times, robbing from the rich to give to the poor, it represents the composer at the height of his melodic inspiration. The first movement boasts a splendidly healthy, outdoor tune, beginning with just a hint of Edward German's "fragrant essence of the greenwood", but soon developing a distinctive voice of its own. The noble and virtuous Maid Marian (Robin Hood's aristocratic companion) is then portrayed by a simple but touching Andante. Curzon indicates that this enchanting movement may be played by strings alone but his discreet woodwind touches undoubtedly enhance the overall effect. It also means that the particularly beautiful little coda, which specifically omits the woodwind, is able to bring proceedings to a close in an especially intimate mood.
The one-time very popular March of the Bowmen strongly suggests that the archers of Sherwood Forest were no raggle-taggle band of ruffians, but close relations of the Yeomen of England. It is all good, stiff-upper-lip stuff which, rather regrettably, tends to get ridiculed these days. The standard English march format is followed, with a stirring main tune followed by a contrasting theme, broader and more regal in feel. Both sections are then repeated, the second being slowed down and given a grandiose, ceremonial rendition.
Bravada: A Paso Coble, dating from 1938 and dedicated "to my colleague and friend Frederic Bayco", a fellow theatre and cinema organist and enthusiastic encourager and promoter of Curzon and his music, this is very much a tourist's impression of Spain. The score incorporates a number of that country's musical cliches - melodic, harmonic and rhythmic - but skilfully weaves them all together into a distinctive Curzonian tapestry. The composer's characteristic fingerprints of unexpected syncopations and meanderings into flat keys are very much in evidence and he deploys his undoubted talent for orchestration to good effect. The inevitable 'Spanish' solo trumpet and castanets put in an appearance, but the whole piece is carried off with tremendous panache - an invigorating display of confidence from a man who, in his everyday life, seemed so shy and retiring.
©1992 Tim McConald
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CURZON: In Malaga / Robin Hood / Punchinello