King's Music

Musica Britannica

(Clifford Bartlett)

Cipriani Potter Symphony in G minor Edited by Julian Rushton. (Musica Britannica 77). Stainer & Bell, 2001. xxxix + 137pp, £72.50. ISBN 0 85249 864 0

I hope Cipriani's ghost will forgive me if I use the publication of his 10th (or 6th) symphony to write about the anniversary commemorated in the booklet circulated with MB LXXVII, in which Music Britannica congratulates itself and is congratulated by the Queen — dedicatee for the whole 50 years — an ex-prime minister and 17 other great and good.

The series began with what must have puzzled most musicians in 1951, The Mulliner Book, edited by Denis Stevens, who is still with us. The first volume I saw was 4, Medieval Carols, published the following year and revised in 1958, the year I went to Cambridge and coincidentally found that its editor, John Stevens, was to be my director of studies (in English literature, not music). At first, the volume disappointed me, since I was looking for precursors of the folky carols in the old Oxford Book of Carols and was disappointed. Only when I heard the New York Pro Music LP and sang some in the college choir (conducted by the editor) did I succumb to their charm. What turned me on to the series was the discovery in 1959 of a second hand copy of vol. 10 (it cost ten shillings). I'd not seen any music like it, and I don't think I managed to hear any for some years. But the patterns looked fascinating on the page, and I tried playing it on the piano. I subscribed to the series as soon as I was earning some money, though I still have a few gaps.

Clearly evident in the three volumes I have mentioned is the desire of the editors (especially, I imagine, Thurston Dart, pictured in the booklet in his room in Jesus College, Cambridge) to bring British musicology up to date. He was a great believer in modernisation of notation — as with many of his ideas, they were right for the time but in hindsight are more questionable. The anniversary pamphlet gives an opportunity to compare an opening of the Eton Choir-book and Frank Ll. Harison's transcription. To present eyes, the imposed pattern of quaver and semiquaver beams contradicts the fluent lines of the original and the strong, vertical barlines going through the blanks between the staves as well as the staves themselves has the same effect. I can't remember if early performances sounded rigidly metrical, but my concept of the music certainly was, thanks to the notation.

I did not realise until I read the new booklet that the original concept of MB was for only ten volumes. If so, what was published presented a very odd view of British music, and I can't really imagine that the founding fathers expected to stop so soon: they probably tactfully kept quiet about a longer series until the earlier volumes had proved themselves. The 77 titles in the series cannot be used as a guide to any image of what British Music was: apart from the fact that some repertoires needed far more editorial work than others so could only be entertained if someone had already done the spadework, MB avoided competition with complementary series like EECM, EMS, the Byrd Edition (sharing the same publisher) and the complete Purcell. Sterndale Bennet was the first 19th-century composer to appear (vol. 37), while the songs volumes of Parry and of Stanford brought the repertoire into what was then the series' own century; a volume of Parry's chamber music is also in preparation. There is no sign of moving into revolutionary new areas such as popular music (copyright restrictions would probably prevent that anyway), though more demotic anthologies such as Georgian psalmody and 19th-century band music are planned.

The series has always been well-designed and printed on heavy paper. Computer setting is now standard, Silverfen producing excellent quality. It is nice to see that orchestral parts are available for the Potter symphony (though regrettably for rental, not sale). The recent introduction of cloth binding is sensible: most sales are to libraries, who will bind them anyway, while private purchasers must find the small additional cost worth it. (My unbound copies of the three volumes mentioned in the preceding column are not in a very good state now.)

As for the latest issue, it was certainly time that a Potter symphony was made available. Potter was a pianist (he gave the UK premieres of Beethoven's second, third and fourth concertos) and conductor. He was involved with the Royal Academy of Music from its start in 1822 (the library there has a few of his MSS). He is best remembered for the fact that Wagner conducted a symphony by him in 1855 and was pleased 'by its unassuming dimensions and its clean contrapuntal workings'. Potter's music rapidly fell out of fashion. The editor lists 10 symphonies by him: confusingly, two are in G minor, yet no number is included in the title. The one published here (probably the one Wagner conducted) is no. 6 in the list, written in 1832 and called no. 10 by the composer. It looks worth hearing, though it is perhaps unfortunate that I've recently been listening to Méhul's symphony in the same key: Potter hasn't quite got the flair or imagination. The climax at bar 43 of the first movement doesn't quite warrant two bars of silence to recover! Although there were matters of detail to tidy up, the editor's main tasks were more those of a copy editor than a musicologist. It is an appropriate volume for the 50th anniversary, since it is edited by MB's current Chairman but based on a score prepared by the first General Editor, Anthony Lewis. It is notable that both Lewis and Dart were performers as well as scholars. They ensured that MB related far more to the world of performing musicians than the German Denkmäler it was emulating: let us hope that this will continue.


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