AN UNSUNG MODERNIST
An Introduction to the music of Denis ApIvor
Recently I met the composer Denis ApIvor at his home in Saltdean. Earlier in the year I had played the violin part in a performance of his Violin Sonata and so together with my accompanist on that occasion, Yeu Meng Chan, I drove down to the south coast in order that Denis might hear the work as he had been unable to attend the concert in person. Before we played the Sonata we were treated to some of the composer’s musical reminiscences which stretch back to the 1920’s. He frequently spoke of people who had meant the most to him throughout his career particularly Constant Lambert, Warlock, Edward Clark, (who was responsible for putting on the concert that featured the Violin Sonata’s first performance at the Wigmore Hall in 1947), William Glock and others. It was quickly clear that the other arts have played an important part in his life. He mentioned the importance to himself of Dylan Thomas and Paul Klee. The fact that he knew many of these artists personally gave his reminiscences all the more force. A few weeks later Denis sent me a tape consisting of extracts of his works. Although they are in the main old recordings presumably from broadcasts enough of the music shines through to give an impression of an individual composing voice. As I listened, I was struck by the music’s originality, vitality and it’s often exploratory nature, a nature which nevertheless arises from the source of inspiration, which is often literary or painterly. Rather than embark on a survey of his entire output, a task which would require a book in itself, I have set down a few brief notes that represent my reactions to the wide variety of music on the tape, in the hope that other performers might be inspired to programme them in concerts or recording projects. The very fact that ApIvor has written for a wide range of different instrumental and vocal groupings should allow all sorts of performers to find something to play from his work list.
1. Clarinet Quintet (2 excerpts) op. 60.
These short excerpts show the composer writing in a style influenced in part by the work of Webern.
2. Harp-Piano Piano-Harp, op.41
This is clearly a remarkable work of contemporary keyboard music. The excerpt presented is in the manner of a moto perpetuo.
3. Orgelberg, op.50
Part of an organ work inspired by Paul Klee. Highly dramatic chordal writing is much to the fore in the extract. Denis became a practitioner on the organ during his time at Hereford Cathedral and this is clear from the idiomatic writing for the instrument.
4. El Silencio Ondulado, op.51
This is a wonderful hushed and shimmering work featuring a solo guitar supported by the extraordinary sound of flutes, percussion and strings. The composer has written much for the guitar and these pieces taken together with those by Reginald Smith Brindle form a major contribution to 20th century guitar writing.
5. Concertante for Horn and Piano, op.71
A slow excerpt of quiet and richly expressive music. Given the relatively small amount of music for this combination of instruments it ought to be in every horn players repertoire.
6. Overtones, op.33
Here are three pieces from a cycle of 12 based on paintings by Klee. Twitter Machine is utterly amazing music. High pitched instruments flit and flutter through space without pause. It might bare interesting comparison with Searle’s most ‘advanced’ work; his 4th Symphony as well as Maxwell Davies’s take on the same painting from his Five Klee Pictures, the first version of which dates from the same year as ApIvor’s work, 1962. Sun and Moon Flowers also present wonderful textures of sound. Uncomposed Objects in Space brings lower brass to the fore and features a prominent piano part. If the whole cycle of 12 pieces is as good as these selections the whole work ought to be commercially recorded as a matter of great urgency as it could emerge as a classic of British modernism.
7. Psycho-Pieces, op.55 for clarinet and piano
A gentle piano part of rolled chords supports a melancholy clarinet melody.
8. Crystals, op.39
This is again very original in style. The composer finds some fantastic sonorities with guitar and Hammond organ featured with extensive percussion. The excerpt is another moto perpetuo. I was sometimes put in mind of Boulez’s later orchestrations of his early piano pieces, Notations, although ApIvor uses chamber forces as opposed to the large orchestra deployed by the Frenchman.
9. Harp-Piano Piano-Harp (2nd excerpt)
This features lovely interplay between piano and harp sounds. Denis also uses a piano with its action removed so that it is played in a harp or cimbalom-like manner. The sounds conjured are almost akin to electronic music which makes it all the more remarkable that the composer was able to hear and notate these sounds exactly.
10. Mutations, op.34 for cello and piano
Here, lyrical episodes are followed by fragmented and playful music of a joyful nature.
11. Cello Concerto, op.64
I think this is an excerpt of the slow movement of this powerful work. Denis played us the first movement during our afternoon visit. The language is less radical than some of the earlier pieces on the sampler. This allows the cello to explore a rich vein of lyricism to which the orchestra responds with a web of beautiful lines and chords. I have yet to hear the finale but on the strength of the first two movements it would be another candidate for urgent performance and recording.
12. Two Songs
The first of these is a dramatic setting of Cancion de Jinete to words by Lorca. It forms part of a cycle of songs entitled Six Songs of Garcia Lorca, op.8a. The translation into English is the composer’s own, indeed he has translated the complete verse of Lorca in 7 volumes. There are many Spanish inflexions in the melody and the piano has figures redolent of flamenco style. Indeed the cycle was later arranged for voice and guitar. The second song, If Thou Wilt Ease Thy Heart of Love, is from a different cycle of Four Poems of Thomas Lovell Beddoes, op.24. This is a very beautiful song with heart-rending melodies and harmonies. Both these songs are performed by the wonderful tenor, Wilfred Brown with Wilfred Parry at the piano in performances that are so sensitive that a company like Symposium might be persuaded to issue them as part of their archive recordings series.
14. Ballet; Corporal Jan, op.42
Two excerpts are played here; the first is Corporal Jan’s Dream which is nervous and full of hushed expectation, the second is Appearance of the Triple Goddess
15. Act 3 of Yerma, op.28
This opera was performed at Sadlers Wells and later broadcast on the Third Programme largely due to the efforts of Arthur Bliss and William Glock, among others. It sounds very powerful indeed, with some fine writing for full chorus, taking the part of revellers, buskers and dancers. There is a feeling of menace and unbridled emotion which is channelled into the interplay between the old woman and Yerma. The old woman’s taunting is chillingly handled and Yerma is propelled into the hysterical accidental killing of her own husband. Her subsequent lament is very moving. Perhaps the BBC recording still exists. The opera deserves a new one in any case, with the full benefits of modern recording that that would afford. On the evidence of the 3rd act, this is an important 20th century opera. Written as it was in the mid 1950’s, it also represents a remarkably advanced musical language for British music of it’s time, which reflects Denis’s cosmopolitan outlook and his rejection of insular attitudes, attitudes that have no doubt played their part in his music’s comparative neglect.
This brief survey of Denis ApIvor’s work only scratches the surface of his musical personality. He has 101 opuses to his credit. Many large scale works still await performance and recording. Even before his adoption, in 1960, of serial techniques following his study of Webern’s music, Denis clearly possessed a radical idiom and a determination to explore new sounds and this is borne out by earlier works such as Yerma and by the somewhat Bartokian Violin Sonata which myself and Yeu Meng so enjoyed performing. He regards his assimilation of serial technique as a sort of ‘graduation’ and it was simply baffling to him that music written in this way could be rejected out of hand by critics as if it were a matter of dogma alone. Much of the most recent music does not use the serial method. What shines through any technical considerations however, is the extraordinary ear the composer possesses, as shown by works such as Overtones. Whereas there were aspects of the musical establishment during the middle decades of the last century that were distrustful of foreign influence, especially if it smacked of modernism, (for example; the suggestion that Britten should not study with Alban Berg despite the encouragement of Frank Bridge), Denis sought to embrace these influences and assimilate them into a new and original style of his own. In this he shares qualities with other British composers like Smith Brindle, Searle, Gerhard and Lutyens. It is commonly suggested that the generation born in the 1930’s, and including such composers as Maxwell Davies and Birtwistle, was the first to make a rapprochement with modernism in music. Searle, ApIvor and others could all too carelessly be dismissed as ‘transitional figures’, a notion which I think mistaken. What composer ever thinks to him or herself, ‘I am a transitional figure’? Hindsight can sometimes distort our historical perspective. That a genuine current of modernist figures existed before the 1960’s is borne out by Denis’s music and those of similar mind. Indeed the current goes further back than one might assume. The late works of Bridge or the early works of Bush and Darnton are a cases in point, as are the songs of Van Dieren and Warlock – significantly two of Denis’s favourite composers.
As far as I am aware there are no commercially available recordings of Denis’s music, a situation which should surly be remedied. He is unfortunate in that the perception of current received thought places him ‘in between’ the Tippett/Britten generation and the Maxwell Davies/Birtwistle generation. If ApIvor is allowed to fall through this imaginary gap, we as performers and listeners might condemn ourselves as having been too lazy to explore his music, whose fascinating sounds await us if we take the trouble.
David Hackbridge Johnson 2004