On Granville Bantock and Sticking to Your Corduroys

Granville Bantock, who has three CDs in dad’s collection, proves a number of adages for me: stick to what you know; don’t lose your head in the clouds; and stop well shy of overkill.

Bantock, a British composer around the turn of the 20th century, was well traveled, and probably super smart. Before he took an appointment with the Tower Orchestra in New Brighton, he toured around the world conducting musical comedies. He was enthusiastic about the Middle East, “launched into learning Persian and certainly owned Arabic books all his life,” according to liner notes. He sounds a fun sort: “Bantock was noted for his liberal views and is reputed to have been the first British academic to have attended a faculty meeting dressed in corduroys!” the liner notes further say.

Given this background, “the themes that inspired Bantock were often exotic: tales of the Orient, tales of Celtic and Classical mythology – tales, in short, to compensate for life in prosaic, materialistic Britain,” another set of liner notes would have it. For me, this is precisely the problem. Maybe it’s a time and place thing – you had to be there, back when political correctness didn’t exist? – but Bantock’s mythological depictions of the Mideast don’t do much other than make me impatient. In “Omar Khayyam,” for example, music based on an English translation of an eleventh-century Persian poet, you get a theme meant to depict the desert in “the savouring of animal existence; the passing enjoyment of mere sense; the pleasant languor; the dreamy tranquility” – which, come ON. At least there’s some authentic camel bells, which do liven things up a bit.

I feel the same way about Bantock’s other more grandiose or more abstract efforts. “Thalaba the Destroyer” suffers from the same problems that “Omar Khayyam” does. “Fifine at the Fair: A Defense of Inconstancy” has such a heavy hand – that penultimate chord! – that it makes me certain that Bantock would himself never even think of inconstancy, let alone defend it.

When Bantock sticks to his roots, though, he is more enjoyable. There are some moments of deeply felt, convincing beauty in his Celtic and Hebridean symphonies, and danceable folk jigs, too. As Michael Hurd writes in one set of liner notes, these pieces “seem to have struck a much deeper vein in the composer’s emotional response and, for all their Straussian orchestral opulence, have a fundamental simplicity that has ensured a certain freshness and immediacy.”

In other words: Stick to your knitting. Or your corduroys.

Granville Bantock. Thalaba the Destroyer. The Song of Songs Prelude. Processional. Caristiona. Prelude & Camel Caravan (Omar Khayyam). Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Vernon Handley.

Granville Bantock. Hebridean Symphony. Celtic Symphony. The Witch of Atlas. The Sea Reivers. Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Vernon Handley.

Granville Bantock. Pagan Symphony. Fifine at the Fair. Two Heroic Ballads. Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Vernon Handley. Hyperion.

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