Rupert Marshall-Luck, Defender of the English Violin Sonata Print E-mail
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Written by Martin Anderson   
Friday, 07 June 2013

Rupert Marshall-Luck, Defender of the English Violin Sonata

The first English Music Festival, the brainchild of a petite blonde powerhouse by the name of Em Marshall, took place in the Oxfordshire village of Dorchester-on-Thames in 2006, and has since become an annual feature in the British musical calendar, reviving long-forgotten scores by English composers and also premiering some interesting new ones. A more recent offshoot of the Festival was EM Records; its first CD, released in March 2011, was of violin sonatas by Bliss, Walford Davies, and Bowen, played by the violinist Rupert Luck and pianist Matthew Rickard (EMR CD001). By the time of its most recent batch of releases, including a disc of violin sonatas by Elgar, Lionel Sainsbury, and Ivor Gurney (EMR CD011), said violinist had morphed into Rupert Marshall-Luck by dint of marrying the founder of the Festival, and the Marshall-Lucks are now something of a power-couple on the British musical scene, doing the cause rather a lot of good between them. Rupert, now 36, has made the exploration of the English violin repertoire something of a personal crusade, stimulated at first by the Elgar Sonata that started him on that path, and he talks about his task with an almost evangelical enthusiasm. “I was born and brought up in Gloucestershire—which, of course, is very much a composers’ county: Parry, Vaughan Williams, Holst, all these people. I was six when I began the violin, but it wasn’t really until 16 or 17, when I got to know the Elgar Violin Sonata, that I really began to be professionally interested, if I can put it like that, in works by British composers. I had a very rigorous tuition, obviously focusing on the core repertoire; that’s something you have to go through. But as I entered my teens I became more interested in selecting my own repertoire, with my teacher’s advice—that was James Coles, who was co-leader of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra for many years and taught at the Birmingham Conservatoire about 20 or 25 years ago. He had studied in France with one of Ysaÿe’s pupils, so he was dedicated to the idea of a solid technical foundation, which was very fortunate for me because he pursued that grounding all the way through my time with him. I enjoyed learning all the core repertoire with him, particularly Mozart, a composer I’ve always held in great affection and admiration. Coming into my teens, I started hearing works by Elgar particularly but also Vaughan Williams, Holst, and so on; I was grabbed at the age of 15 or 16 by the Elgar Sonata. At first, the outer movements were the ones I was attracted to; the second movement I found much more elusive—but I’m by no means alone in that, I’ve since discovered! The second movement is very much an autumnal movement, and as a 15-, 16-year-old I wasn’t able to appreciate it; I simply hadn’t had the life-experience to appreciate fully what he was saying. Technically, it wasn’t an issue, but I felt dissatisfied with the way I was playing it because I hadn’t got inside it to the extent that it deserved and demanded. It wasn’t until several years later that I began to realize at first hand the huge range of repertoire for violin and piano, which has been very much the focus of my chamber-music activity. I came across the Parry violin sonatas through Jeremy Dibble, who edited them for Musica Britannica. Parry I knew as the composer of these great choral works, but in common with many people I hadn’t realized that he had written a fair body of chamber music. Although the First Sonata in particular is very much a product of Schumann and Brahms, I was fascinated by the way they really chart his development as a composer, from the late 1870s, when he was beginning to start composition seriously, through the Second Sonata, the Fantasie Sonate which is much more experimental in many ways—certainly formally, if not tonally as well—through to the Third Sonata, the D-Major, from the late 1880s, where you feel that Parry has achieved his individual voice, it’s recognizably Parry, which to some extent it hasn’t been in the previous two sonatas—and in a country which hadn’t really had a strong chamber-music tradition before. Parry owed a great deal to the chamber-music concerts that were put on by his mentor and teacher Edward Dannreuther at 12 Orme Square in London [just by the north-east corner of Hyde Park]: It was there that he first heard the chamber music of Schumann, Brahms, Schubert, Mozart, these core composers, and that is what inspired him to write chamber music of his own. To be able to see in these violin sonatas, in quite an intimate fashion, the progression he had from where you can see the fingerprints of influence through to the point where he had let go of that and developed his individual voice into this strong and vibrant violin sonata was absolutely fascinating.

“Alongside that, I began to explore other works, such as the Walton Violin Sonata. That was a piece that was recommended to me by Clarence Myerscough, when I was at Cambridge and had some lessons with him; he said: ‘You should look at this work because it’s absolutely marvelous and nowhere near as often performed as it should be.’ (I did a degree in music and then went on to graduate work with Simon Fischer. My performance of these works really began to take off during my graduate study with Simon—although I was sufficiently smitten with the Elgar sonata to write a dissertation on it during my degree at Cambridge. That helped a huge amount, particularly with the second movement, having the depth of understanding, the appreciation of Elgar’s life and the extent to which you can regard the violin sonata almost as an autobiographical commentary. You can see the quotations and the very poignant references that come in the work. I had the remarkable experience of playing in The Dream of Gerontius at Cambridge under Stephen Cleobury. The quotation from Gerontius that occurs in the second movement of the sonata—he brought that in, the Committal Theme from Gerontius , in such a way that he is almost saying farewell to a life, to friends who have died or with whom he has lost contact. And he brings it back at the end of the third movement, and he quotes the Enigma Variations there. All these references are perhaps not that difficult to spot, but having studied Elgar’s life in a bit more depth for this dissertation, and having to bring my own imagination to bear on the significance of these quotations, very much helped my understanding of the work and helped me to get inside it a bit better.”

Shostakovich, of course, is the composer best known for leaving “messages” in his music to carry non-musical meaning over the heads of the apparatchiks, and so one wonders whether Elgar made these allusions deliberately intending later generations to discover them or whether they had an entirely private purpose. “I think it might be fair to look on them as an offshoot of the wordgames and puns that he liked, and all these tantalizing clues about the Enigma Variations , what the theme is, the theme that is not played. In the violin sonata and The Music-Makers you may have the same thing with more poignant overtones, and yes, there is a sense in which he perhaps almost wanted people to discover it, although he was very disparaging when people wanted to discuss his work or get him to explain it. Perhaps for him it was a bit of a front, the Edwardian stiff upper lip, even, because he didn’t want to talk about something so personal for him, and so it found expression in these musical ciphers.”

Was the Gurney Violin Sonata that accompanies the Elgar on the CD another early interest or was that a more recent discovery? “That must have been in the autumn of 2010. I met Ian Venables, who is the chairman and lead trustee of The Ivor Gurney Trust [and a fine composer in his own right]. He e-mailed me and asked whether I would be interested in playing some of Gurney’s music for violin and piano, mentioning the fact that there had been these violin sonatas languishing in the archive in Gloucestershire.” How many are there? “He started a huge number of them; I don’t think anyone’s sure exactly how many there are! Some of them he finished, some he didn’t. Gurney always struggled with large-scale forms. Ian said that there were two sonatas in particular that he believed would be worth investigating further, one of them being the E♭-Sonata, which is on the disc. I said I would obviously be very interested to take a look and got in touch with Philip Lancaster, who is in charge of cataloguing Gurney’s manuscripts. He was very helpful in sending me various versions of the manuscripts and between us we came up with what we believe is the final version. The manuscript wasn’t too difficult to decipher. What was difficult was that he had obviously written the whole thing very quickly, to the point where, when the accidentals are coming thick and fast (because it is quite a chromatic work in many ways), a lot of them he simply omitted. He knew what he wanted, so he hasn’t actually bothered writing them in. So when I was editing the work for performance, that was probably the most time-consuming part of it, working out where the accidentals were. Some of them I missed, and my pianist-colleague was instrumental in pointing them out to me in rehearsal. We went through a phase where at the beginning of every rehearsal he would produce a list of questions: ‘This note here, is it supposed to be a C♯?’ He was great at helping me with that and pointing out things that I had overlooked.” Might Gurney’s precarious mental health have had something to do with these missing details? “Well, it dates from the period where he was at his most mentally stable, from 1918 to 1919. He began it when he was in the Napsbury war hospital near St. Albans. He felt moved to write a scherzo for violin and piano which became the second movement of the sonata. He sent Marion Scott a postcard of St. Albans Abbey and said on the back: ‘I’m hammering away at a violin-and-piano scherzo sitting in front of this’—because his room in the hospital overlooked the Abbey. So it was begun there, but when he went back to the Royal College [of Music] to study under Vaughan Williams—whom he found a great deal more congenial than the famously irascible and abrasive Stanford, with whom he had studied previous to the First World War—he revised the first movement and the scherzo. The scherzo was written at the end of August and beginning of September 1918, and the first movement completed on September 11, 1918 (the sketches date it), but he became discontented with those movements and revised them both, and added to them what became the finale and the slow movement when he was studying at the College again. It was a period when he felt very positive; he was surrounded by like-minded friends; Vaughan Williams had been very encouraging about his work—although not uncritical, but he found that a much more affirming experience than studying under Stanford, with whom he didn’t get on at all. (Possibly he was a little too critical, and Gurney didn’t take too well to harsh criticism!) He felt very hopeful and had a very buoyant sense of mind in 1919–20, and then, of course, it all started going quite badly downhill for him after that. So this was a time when he was in a cohesive mental state, and it’s why the sonata itself, the way it’s laid out, the handwriting, is quite coherent; it’s not a chaotic, muddled way of writing in the slightest.” Some of the Gurney chamber music revived in recent years has had a tendency to lose its way, with sudden loss of focus. “That isn’t a problem with the E♭-Sonata. Mind you, it’s not the easiest piece to play, from the point of view of musical shaping but it’s also very intense, emotionally, as a piece. A lot of the language, as I said, is very chromatic, but for me in these passages it’s almost as if he is writing in this yearning he had for his beloved Gloucestershire countryside. As I was editing it from the manuscript for the first performance at the English Music Festival in 2011, I was working my way through the last movement and he ends up in a very remote key from the tonic of E♭-Major. I could see the end of the movement coming, and I thought: ‘How’s he going to get out of this one?’ But then he almost turns the music on a sixpence and brings it back to the tonic; it’s quite remarkable, actually, and very cleverly done harmonically, but I just wonder whether there’s not that sense that, even when he was happy at the Royal College, even when he was surrounded by support and encouraging friends such as Herbert Howells and had the encouragement of Vaughan Williams, even in that state he was still yearning for Gloucestershire. So I wonder whether there’s a sense of harmonic distance from where he should be, in E♭-Major, by that stage of the music, but he’s not, he’s very remote from it. And there’s a sense of affirmation when he reaches E♭-Major—it’s noticeable in a work that’s so intensely chromatic that in the last 15 or so bars there’s not a single accidental; it’s utterly diatonic, in E♭-Major. He has come back to it and he’s wholly there; there’s no part of him that’s removed from the home key. I think that’s got quite a lot of psychological significance to it; there is a sense in which he very much comes home in those final bars. For the rest of the work there are certainly passages where the music is almost elusive in terms of its harmonic direction, but we found when preparing it for performance, and then later for the recording, that the important thing was to keep a forwards momentum always, and sometimes with Gurney you do get a sense that the melodic line is more important than the vertical component of what he is doing. So you should keep that in mind as you work through it, almost like 16th-century polyphony, where the horizontal is more important than the vertical, rather than worry how he is moving from one chord to the next. And, of course, with Gurney being such a noted song-composer, it’s perhaps indicative of his melodic pre-occupation.”

The companion composer to Elgar and Gurney on this disc is Lionel Sainsbury, who with cello and violin concertos on Dutton and some other smaller-scale pieces elsewhere has slowly been making himself known. “He’s very much a composer in the lyrical vein, but that’s not to say his music is in any sense insipid; quite the opposite. I met Lionel for the first time about three or four years ago; we got talking about his music and he very kindly sent me the scores of some of his works, including Soliloquy , which is on the disc. I was very struck by the energy and the vitality of his music. The first work of his that Matthew and I played was a Violin Sonata which he wrote when he was still a student or had just finished being a student. I remember him saying that this was the first early work that he still recognized; he had written off the others as student attempts but this one he felt was his first mature work. Then we played another work of his, Mirage , which is tremendously atmospheric; not as driving as the sonata but nonetheless tremendously effective, almost hypnotic in places the way he writes the motivic cells which repeat, but then he varies them in a very organic way to allow the piece to develop. Soliloquy is a work for solo violin, not for violin and piano, and it’s rare in being a single-movement work for solo violin. The title sets up a certain expectation in the mind of the listener, in the sense that you expect it either to be a very declamatory piece or a very introspective one, but what’s interesting is that it’s actually both; it’s rather similar to the opening soliloquy of Richard III in that it begins with this very public voice, very forceful, multiple-stopping, a very demonstrative tone. A little later into the piece it becomes a lot more intimate, almost as if the audience was being taking into the player’s confidence, and it becomes a much more introspective color. It’s the juxtaposition of those two characters that really drives the piece; they form the impetus of the development of the work, with two motifs from the very opening, which are used for the very organic development.”

Marshall-Luck must be the only violinist whose personal life can be charted via his CD covers—on that for the Bliss, Walford Davies, and Bowen sonatas he is simply “Rupert Luck”—but what of the music on that disc? “As an anthology it might be rather unexpected. Bliss is not an unknown composer the way that Walford Davies is, but many people, if they know Bliss’s music, know his film scores, ballet music, and so on. The Violin Sonata is very early; we’re not sure exactly when it dates from but it’s almost certainly 1912, 1913, that sort of period. It went missing, completely, for decades. The manuscript had been deposited in Cambridge University Library. Bliss had become discontent with some passages and crossed them out, but nobody knew whether he had made any alterations, or made them and destroyed them, or whether he had made them and they had gone missing somewhere—and the latter scenario was the true one. There was a general reluctance to tamper with it; although Bliss hadn’t gone so far as to destroy the manuscript (as he had done with several of his other early chamber works, for instance), he obviously wasn’t as happy with it as to let it go out as it then stood. It wasn’t until the revisions did actually turn up that The Bliss Trust asked me to make an edition of the work, which we’re hoping will be published quite soon. What made it tricky is that Bliss hadn’t actually indicated where his alterations should fit, so I had to do a fair amount of detective work to piece together the jigsaw, as to what exactly was going on with the piece. It turns out to be a single-movement piece of about 11 minutes. There’s some speculation that it might have been intended for the Cobbett chamber music competition, although I don’t think there’s any record of it having been entered for that. It was fascinating to come across that very early piece and find that it is in quite a different voice from his later music. You can hear quite a lot of French influence in it, in terms of the harmonic language. That was a fascinating project, because it was the first piece I had edited from a composer’s manuscript. The Holst Five Pieces which I had done before and which are on EMR CD006 [with Vaughan Williams and Walford Davies violin sonatas] are very early works, not at all characteristic of the later Holst but nonetheless very attractive and colorful and charming pieces, those I edited from the printed editions which had come out in Holst’s own lifetime in publications such as The Vocalist , so to work for the first time from a composer’s manuscript was a thrilling experience.”

Perhaps the least familiar name in the composers Marshall-Luck has tackled so far is that of Henry Walford Davies—these days, at least. “These sonatas, No. 2 on the first disc and No. 1 on EMR CD006, are again early works. Walford Davies was well known in his own lifetime as a composer of choral works, and perhaps his most famous piece is the RAF March Past . He was also noted as a broadcaster: He was one of the first people to pioneer programs about music for what you might call lay listeners, and he was also well known for his broadcasts for young people, introducing them to music. There’s a huge body of his manuscripts in the Royal College of Music library. He wrote five violin sonatas in total; Nos. 3 and 4 were published by Novello soon after they were composed, but that slightly muddies the waters since they published them as Nos. 1 and 2. So the two earlier works, actually Nos. 1 and 2, were never published at all, although they are fully finished works. No. 5 is not completed: He got about halfway through the third movement, then the whole thing peters out. That’s probably because at the time of that sonata’s composition he was just beginning work at the Temple Church, where he was organist and choirmaster. So my guess is he simply didn’t have time at that stage of his life for too much composition and he just never got round to finishing it—and in that position choral music would have been much more his focus anyway. The style owes a lot to Brahms; there’s no doubt about that. It’s not a complicated language—it’s nowhere near the complexity of Gurney, for example. His emphasis is very much on a strongly tonal, strongly diatonic musical language. Nevertheless, in formal terms his works are very interestingly constructed. For example, in the First Sonata which we did in 2006, in the second movement it’s not until you hear it several times that you realize it is in fact a very sophisticated theme and variations, but the way he blurs the edges of the theme—it’s not a theme that stops and starts again—is dovetailed, very beautifully elided, so that it gives the impression of being a through-composed movement although structurally it isn’t. For me that is the most fascinating aspect of his music, those very original formal structures. He’s not breaking new ground in the sense that Parry did in his Fantasie Sonate of 1878, for example, in that he wrote basically a four-movement structure in one movement, but he’s taking a textbook sonata form and shedding new light on the movement in question.”

Fortunately, EM Records doesn’t have a monopoly on Marshall-Luck’s playing, and he also appears on a CD on my own label, Toccata Classics, on a disc (TOCC 0150) of chamber music of John Pickard, where he appears in the Piano Trio, Insomnia for violin and piano, and the Violin Sonata, and also plays the Chaconne for solo viola. “I met John through John Grimshaw [chairman of the Havergal Brian Society] who arranged for me to be sent some scores of the violin sonata and Insomnia and a recording of live performances. I was very struck by these works. What for me was particularly fascinating was the very individual harmonic language that John uses—in the sonata he’s got that very distinctive scale of interlocking semitones and tones, and he juxtaposes that with the cycle of fifths, which of course comes from the violin’s open strings. The alternating semitones and tones don’t coincide with the perfect fifths, and so he uses that as a mutually propulsive stimulus for his work. That sort of idea wasn’t something I had come across before. And the energy he brings to his music is tremendously rewarding. Of course, the works themselves are fiendishly difficult from a technical point of view, because it’s written in a way that the patterns don’t lie obviously (I’m talking as a violinist) and you almost have to devise new fingering systems; that’s a hugely exciting challenge, to have to do that kind of lateral thinking. And Insomnia , too, is a very descriptive work, very atmospheric, in that there’s an almost obsessional repetition of motifs—which, of course, is an entirely accurate representation of the frame of mind when suffering from insomnia, when ideas keep going round and round in your head, niggling away.” Since we have leapfrogged over another EM Records release (EMR CD003), with a Holbrooke Violin Sonata and a Viola Sonata by Bantock, we haven’t yet mentioned that Marshall-Luck also plays the viola. “Yes, I started when I was about 13. It was a bit of a baptism of fire, since my teacher said: ‘Here’s a viola. You’re playing the first viola part in Brahms’s Sextet in B♭-Major’—and I didn’t even know the alto clef at that time, so I had to work extremely fast to assimilate that! The Bantock viola sonata is a fascinating work in itself, with so much variety and so many facets of Bantock’s personality displayed: There’s the fun-loving, slightly mischievous character of the third movement, together with the melancholic and very heartfelt second movement. But the great thing about having the viola is that it brings the opportunity to play things like John’s Chaconne, which is very different in many respects from his violin repertoire. And the slightly different technical basis that you have to bring to bear when playing the viola as opposed to playing the violin—not just a question of different finger-spacings but of tone-production, fingering, type of vibrato, and so on—is something very worthwhile having developed, even if it was a little terrifying the first time I ever did it!”

For someone without much of a recorded profile beforehand, Marshall-Luck seems to be making up the lost ground at some speed. “It has been remarkable. When you start doing this kind of repertoire, a number of people come forward and say: ‘Have you come across this?’—a bit like Ian Venables did with the Gurney. We’re recording a CD in July, which will include the Third Violin Sonata of Granville Bantock. It has been recorded before, but this will be the first recording using an authoritative edition. Although Bantock’s manuscripts are very clear, there are certain discrepancies, certain problems, which it is good to iron out in an official edition that has been sanctioned by the Bantock family, which is a great endorsement, obviously. That will also include the Viola Sonata by Cyril Scott and that will be a world premiere recording; I’m editing that from the manuscript for the recording. That’s the next project in hand. And there’s a concerto disc as well, but that’s a bit under wraps for the moment. One exciting thing coming up is that at next year’s English Music Festival Matthew and I are playing the Harold Darke E-Minor Sonata, and although it’s not a first performance, it’s the first performance for about 60 years. Everyone knows Darke for In the Bleak Mid-Winter , but this is a very extravert, big-boned, demonstrative work, which is tremendously exciting to be able to play.”

HOLBROOKE Violin Sonata in F, “The Grasshopper.” BANTOCK Viola Sonata in F, “Colleen” Rupert Marshall-Luck (vn, va); Matthew Rickard (pn) EMR 003 (67:01)

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Violin Sonata in a. HOLST 5 Pieces for Violin and Piano. H. W. DAVIES Violin Sonata in E♭ Rupert Marshall-Luck (vn); Matthew Rickard (pn) EMR 006 (63:23)

GURNEY Violin Sonata in E♭. SAINSBURY Soliloquy for Solo Violin. ELGAR Violin Sonata in e Rupert Marshall-Luck (vn); Matthew Rickard (pn) EMR 011 (68:24)

PICKARD Piano Trio. Insomnia for Violin and Piano. Chaconne for Solo Viola. Valedictions for Cello and Piano; Violin Sonata. Snowbound for Bass Clarinet, Cello, and Piano Rupert Marshall-Luck (vn, va); Sophie Harris (vc); Ian Mitchell (cl); Matthew Rickard (pn) TOCCATA 150 (78:35)

Last Updated ( Friday, 24 May 2013 )
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