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Gordon Crosse at 50

Author(s): Andrew Burn

Source: The Musical Times, Vol. 128, No. 1738 (Dec., 1987), pp. 679+681-683
Published by: Musical Times Publications Ltd.
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Andrew Burn
is on 1 December.
The starting-pointfor Gordon Crosse's style, like that of
most of his contemporaries,was postwar Europeanserial
composition, in particularWebern, which he combined
(likeMaxwell Davies)with medievaland Renaissancecompositional techniques. From his early works, however,
Crosse has rarelybeen rigid in his approachto serialism;
he has been increasinglyflexible, allowing tonal elements
to be retainedand his instinctive ability for writing striking melody and harmony to be paramount. A natural
dramaticgift is also apparent:it is no coincidencethat two
important influences have been Berg and Britten.
Crosse was born in Bury in 1937 and studied at Oxford
with Egon Wellesz and BernardRose. He workedon 15thcenturymusic with FrankHarrisonand studiedwith Goffredo Petrassiin Rome. He quickly establishedhis reputation (and versatility)through such works as the children's
piece Meetmy Folks(1964), the Concertoda camera(1966),
a large-scalechoral work Changes(1965-6) and the opera
Purgatory(1966). His gifts as a teacherwere also recognized; he has held posts at Birminghamand Essex universities
at King's
and in California.He was composer-in-residence
College, Cambridge(1973- 5), but from 1976 has concentrated almost exclusively on composing.
Crosse'searly practicesmay be seen in the Elegy for orchestraop.1 (1959). Its opening six-noteflute phrase,with
its inversion, forms the 12-note row from which all the
melodic and harmonicmaterialderives. Rhythmicallythe
piece is developed through isorhythmic structures and
much play is madeof canon,both mensuraland direct.The
titles and methods of other early worksreflect Crosse'sinterest in medieval music as well as the influence of Maxwell Davies: Villanelles(1959) and Carolfor flute and piano
Berg's incorporationof tonal aspects within his work
pointed Crosse in the directionhis own music would take.
In CorpusChristi Carol(1961) he applied serial methods
to diatonicideas;here two four-noterows, A- C - B - F and
F- G - A - F sharp.This was continuedin the Concertoda
camera(1962), which he composed while studying with
Petrassi, who liked the first movement but felt its style
limited. Crosse rewrotethe scherzo in as differenta manner as possible, and the rest of the work becamea contrast
between the two moods: lyrical and reflective, and fiery
and sharp-edged.Again Crosse exploits a diatonic series,

Lento e calmo
^ con poco vibrato




A X,i[is-la hF
4t TT
1N6j , *I it
i4^y 7 j) 1i
lipVlnP ~'<P>


p mf

this time of seven notes, played by the solo violin at the

opening (ex. 1).
The Concertoda cameramarkeda watershed:in it Crosse
founda greatlyexpandedexpressiverangeand in retrospect
he noted that it was 'the first work in which [he] became
interestedin music as drama'.That is apparentin the works
that followed, like Purgatory;but equally importantwas
anotheraspectwhich has become typical:the gift of spontaneous, graceful melody, as in ex.2, from Changes.

Moderato - poco con moto

O shep

realm of pearl and

herd-ess of Eng-land'sfold,

Be-hold this


Meetmy Folksand ChangesrevealedBritten'sinfluence,

particularlyin the melodic writing. Generallyit has been
a benign relationshipfrom which Crosse has gained;only
rarely,as in the song cycle The Cool Web(1975), does he
come too close to Britten for comfort. The techniques of
Britten's later music have had an impact; Britten's
developmentalprocessin the Cello Symphony,for instance,
informsthe recent trumpetconcertoArray (1986). Just as
the melody at the centre of the symphony's Adagio is
transformedto becomethe radiantthemeof the Passacaglia,
so the lament of Array's slow movement emerges as the
finale's joyous toccata. But Crosse's homage to Britten is
Dreamsongs(1979), dedicatedto his memory; its genesis
is Britten's Ceremonyof Carols,from which Crosse teases
allusions,weavingthem into an orchestraltapestryof poignant elegiac beauty, producing one of his most perfectly
conceived works.
Dreamsongsis a prime example of the. way Crosse
developshis thematicmaterialby restatementand decoration ratherthanby 'Classical'development(a facettraceable
to medieval music). Another is the opening movement of
the Violin Concerto no.2, which comprises a threefold
repetition and elaboration of three separate groups of
material.Sometimesfragmentaryideas at the beginningof
pieces evolve to reachfull realizationat the end, as in this
concerto, when an Ockeghem chanson emerges as the
source material. Layering and superimposing ideas is
another process, as in the second part of the Symphony
no.2 (1975) and SomeMarcheson a Ground(1970), where
the juxtapositionof march tunes has an Ivesian quality.
Playground(1978) is a more sophisticatedworking of the
same process. Crosse sees a place for different kinds of
music within his own, hence the Cretan folk music that

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imbuesAriadne(1972). There has also been an increasing

use ofostinatos,controlledand in freetempo, againstwhich
longer melodies grow, further evidence of how Britten's
latermusic (in this case the church parables)has influenced Crosse.
Crosse'sworks, particularlyinstrumentalones, show an
individualapproachto form. Single-movementstructures
are favoured, as in the three concertanteworks, Ariadne,
Thel(1976) and Wildboy(1987), Ceremony(1966) and the
Second Symphony. The String Quartet(1980) and Cello
Concerto (1979), though broken down into sections, are
constructed of one extended span and variations are exploited in the CorpusChristi Carol, the Epiphany VariaFormshaveoftenbeen derivedthrough
tionsand Ceremony.
his wide literarytastes. The SecondViolin Concerto'stwopartstructurewas suggestedby Nabokov'snovel Pale Fire,
in which a simple lyrical idea is subjected to grotesque
distortionthat all but obliteratesthe original. Part I of the
concerto parallelsthe poem itself and is cast in a sort of
carolformbasedon a threefoldsequence:RefrainI, Verse,
RefrainII. The fragmentationand transformationof those
ideas in Part II is analogousto the process of destruction
wrought on the poem.
A recurrentfascinationfor Crosse is the interactionbetween reality and fantasy, as in World Within where
Emily Bronte lives out her reality through her imagined
Kingdom of Gondal, or the war in The Story of Vasco,
waged in a mixtureof surrealistblack comedy and a harsh
reality that leaves the hero dead. Linked to this is a preoccupationwith dreams;Dreamsongand Dreamcanoncontain hypnotic and slumberingmusic. Margueritein Vasco
lives through her dreams,and in TheGraceof Todd,Todd
discovers his own worth in a daydream-likevision.
Like Britten, Crosse is concerned with the loss of innocence;by losinghis childlikefearlessness- his innocence
- Vasco dies. There are simple melodies permeatinghis
music, like the nursery rhymes flowing through Potter
Thomsonand Playground,a work overtly 'about' growing
up, mixing music representingthe child and adult state
of mind. The title Changesrefers to the passing of time
as symbolized by the ringing in and out of the year, and
by extension an image of the span of man's life, as well
as the change-ringingbells, whose underlyingtolling and
clanging haunts the work.

Centralto Crosse'soutputis his dramaticwork,particularly

opera. The one-act Purgatorywas an impressive debut in
the genre, setting a sombre symbolic play by Yeats, centredon a pedlarhauntedby guilt of his own andhis parents'
past. Its companion-piece, The Graceof Todd,features a
hapless private trapped by the soullessness of army life.
It was less successful, though, partly because of its slight
plot. However, Crosseskilfully evokesthe characterof the
officious 2nd Lieutenant Pratt, and the scene afterhe has
fallen in the riverand the soldiers'attemptsto rescuehim,
is carried through in genuinely comic music.

Crosse'sfull-lengthopera, TheStoryof Vasco(1968- 73),

commissionedby English National Opera, was based on
a version by Ted Hughes of a play by Georges Schehade.
Vascoundertakesa secretwartimemissionfor the Mirador
General;the heroine,Marguerite,dreamsthat she marries
Vasco:her searchfor him is the centralactionof the opera.
Despite Hughes'sexcellentlibrettoand a scorepackedwith
memorablemusic Vascofailed to establishitself. Arguably
th tproblem lies with the main characters, Vasco,
Margueriteand Ceasar(Marguerite'shalf-crazedfather),
who do not sufficiently engage the sympathieseven with
the benefit of Crosse's powers of characterization:
Marguerite's dreamworld is immediately established
through her coloraturalines, and Ceasar'spersonalityby
a quirky nervous figure on xylophone and marimba.But
the lesser characters,like Lieutenant September and the
Mirador,seem more intriguing, as in the latter's only appearancewhere Crosse evokes him as a black philosopher
of war.
Generallythe opera proceedsthrough a combinationof
lyrical recitativeand arioso, but there are also set pieces,
a reflectionof Crosse'sadmirationfor Verdi. Among them
are Marguerite'sdreamin Act 1 and the hilarioussecondact trio of intelligence officers who, though disguised as
women, retain their moustaches so that the enemy will
assume they are women pretendingto be men. There are
two recurringmotifs, one synonymous with death (often
connectedwith the spectralsonorityof the cimbalom),the
otherfor Vasco(associatedwith a solo violin).Anotherharmonic structuralelement is the chord sequence heard in
Act 3, which acts as a groundover which a series of variations accompanyVasco's interrogation.
The oppressive odour of war that hangs over the opera
is evoked by Crosse's brilliant response to Hughes's images, for instancethe crows that haunt the poet's work are
used as an omnipresentsymbol of death and destruction.
In the opening scene their wailing plainsong is like a
malevolentKyrie and laterin the act they becomethe keening widows of the village bereft of men. March tunes and
rhythmsparadein and out of the tale, as at the beginning
of Act 2 and in the concluding scene. Crosse's theatrical
instinct is nowhere more telling than in the final scene,
when against the sounds of victory Marguerite mourns
Vasco (ex.3). The realization that her dream has been
destroyedby his death, compoundedby her own inability
to recognizehim, unleashes a flood of distraughtanguish.

What shall I



co! Vas-co! Vas - co! Vas

Vas - co! Vas - co!


- co!


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Here Crosse imbues Marguerite with a genuinely tragic

intensity;consequentlythe audiencerespondsto her more
The operasthat followedboth involvechildren:a nativity
opera Hollyfrom the Bongs(1974) and an allegory, Potter
Thompson,in which Crosse evokes a world of mysterious
elemental powers. His theatre music since then has been
for dance:Playgroundand Wildboy(whichCrosseoriginally
conceived as a ballet) have been choreographed,and for
the Royal Ballet he composed YoungApollo(1984), which
was createdby David Bintley and takes and extends Britten's work of the same name.
Crosse'stheatricalskillsspill over into two concertworks:
WorldWithin,for actress, mezzo-sopranoand ensemble,
and the monodramaMemoriesof Morning:Night (1971),
in effect an extendedoperaticscena for mezzo-sopranoand
orchestra. Untrammelled by problems of staging and
theatricaltiming inherent in the operahouse, Crosse here
producedhis dramaticmasterpieceto date.The text is from
Jean Rhys's novel WideSargassoSea, the subjectof which
is the madMrs Rochesterof Jane Eyre.Memoriesis a study
of madness in which Crosse distils the novel's action in
two parts: 'Coulibri', the West Indian estate of Mrs
Rochester's youth, burnt down by slaves, killing her
brotherand sendingher mothermad;and 'Thornfield',the
bleakhouse in which she is imprisonedand which, afflicted
by madness and memories of fire, she sets ablaze.
The distinction between the two parts, and the change
of place, is effected through an orchestral interlude
representingher marriageand journeyto England.To emphasize this dramatically,not only does Crosse divide the
orchestrainto two in Part 1, creating a 'Wedding Band'
(similar to the Mexican mariachiorchestras)which sits
separatelyfromthe stringsand hornsof the mainorchestra,
but also by the soloist moving from a position beside the
'WeddingBand' to the front of the platform.The simple
melodies of the beginning provide the kernel of thematic
ideas,distortedin Crosse'sfamiliarmannerduringthe work
as a vivid analogyto Mrs Rochester'sdescentinto madness.
Given Crosse's interest in dramatic possibilities, it is
hardlysurprisingthat the concertohas been the dominant
form in his orchestralmusic. Apart from two essays for
cello and violin respectively and the recent trumpet concerto Array, there are three concertanteworks, for oboe
(Ariadne),flute (Thel)and clarinetand cimbalom(Wildboy).
Among these the Cello Concerto (1979) may be taken as
a summationof the many aspectsthat characterizeCrosse's
The dramaticelementis presentin the antithesisbetween
the cello's elegiac natureand its dry scherzandoqualities,
as well as in the opposition of diatonic and chromatic
modes. In the opening section, for example, the orchestra
plays only white notes, but graduallythe chromaticismof
the solo partpervadesthe whole. The series,with its typical
diatonic implications, was from Dallapiccola's Piccola
musicanotturna(the work is a memorialto Dallapiccola).


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It is manipulated to subtle effect, for instance only once

ing the scoring; in the second, trumpets and trombones
are all 12 pitches heard together in the anguished chord
are added, and in the third a horn.
at the concerto's climax which resolves on to a quiet minor
The concerto's valedictory nature unlocked a vein of
triad, producing a moment of intense melancholy. Ostinatos
brooding sadness which resulted in one of Crosse's finest
are used too, as in the opening, where the repeated orachievements. Its music epitomizes his view that he is unchestral figurations (drawn from letters of Dallapiccola's
convinced that 'because seemingly inevitable historical proname) present a shifting, dreamlike state against which the
gress has led composers to use ever more complex comsoloist plays an impassioned oration.
binations, the simpler chords such as triads have lost their
usefulness'. From this stance his work has demonstrated
Exploiting the cello's ability to create contrast led Crosse
to the concerto's form. Each movement consists of alterthat characteristic of British composers to retrace ground
nate sections marked 'elegy' and 'scherzo', and though
others have abandoned and find within it potential anew.
nominally in three-movement form, the work is a continuous musical span, with two, as Crosse puts it, 'pauses
for breath'. Thus the second and third movements begin
with the same music as at the end of the first and second.
GordonCrosseis BBC Radio 3's 'This Week'sComposer'each
Crosse also ensures that each movement is distinct by altermorningof the week beginning7 December.
1959 Elegy op.l (small orch)
1973 The Story of Vasco op.29, opera in three acts
1974 Holly from the Bongs, nativity opera
Villanelles op.2 (fl, ob, cl, bn, hn, vn, vc)
1975 The Cool Web op.36 (high v, pf)
1961 Corpus Christi Carol op.5 (high v, cl, hn, str qt)
1962 Concerto da camera op.6 (vn, small orch)
Symphony no.2 op.37
Potter Thompson, music drama in one act
Carol op.7 (fl, pf)
Concerto for Chamber Orchestra op.8
1976 Symphony no.1 op.l3a [rev. of Sinfonia
1963 For the Unfallen op.9 (T, hn, strs)
Thel op.38 (fl, double str septet, 2 hn)
Meet my Folks op.10 (speaker,children's chorus,
Epiphany Variations op.39 (orch)
perc ens)
1977 World Within op.40 (actress, Mez, ens)
1964 Symphonies op.11 (chamberorch)
1978 Playground op.41 (orch)
1965 Sinfonia concertante op.13; withdrawn
1966 Changes op. 17 (S, Bar, chorus, orch)
Wildboy op.42 (cl, cimb, ens)
1979 Dreamsongs op.43 (small orch)
1966 Purgatory op.18, opera in one act
Cello Concerto op.44
Ceremony op.19 (vc, orch)
1980 String Quartet op.47
1967 The Grace of Todd op.20, opera in one act
Voices from the Tomb (medium v, pf)
1968 The Covenant of the Rainbow op.24 (choir, org,
Dreamcanon 1 op.49 (choir, 2 pf, perc)
1982 Trio [Rhymes/Reasons] op.52 (cl, vc, pf)
1969 The New World op.25 (medium v, pf)
1983 Wavesongs (vc, pf)
Violin Concerto no.2 op.26
1984 Young Apollo, ballet (pf, orch)
Ouvert: clos op.27 (chamberorch)
1986 A Wake Again (2 c-ten, 2 rec, vc, hpd)
1970 Some Marches on a Ground op.28 (orch)
Trio (vn, vc, pf)
1971 Memories of Morning: Night op.30 (Mez, orch)
1972 Ariadne op.31 (ob, ens)
Array (tpt, strs)
Celebration (unison vv, chorus, orch)





Alec Hyatt King

Mozart's Don Giovanni in Prague
edited by Jan Kristek
Theatre Institute(Prague, 1987); 191pp.;
Kcs 25
Mozart'sDon Giovanniwas first performed at the Nostitz Theatre (since 1945 the
Tyl Theatre) in Prague on 29 October
1787. It was a happy idea of the city's
Theatre Institute to mark the opera's
bicentenarywith the publicationof this at-

tractive book, which is copiously illustrated and very well documented. It

comprisesthree essays - 'The Theatreof
Mozart'sDon Giovanni'by Jiri Hilmera;
'Prague Operatic Traditions and the
Origin of Don Giovanni' by Tomislav
Volek; 'Scenographyof Don Giovanni in
Prague'by VeraPtackovaand a 'Table of
Selected Don Giovanni Productions at
Prague Theatres' by Vlasta Koubska.
Hilmera gives an excellent account of
the planning and purpose of the famous

theatredesigned and built in 1782- 3 by

Anton Hafeneckerfor Count Franz Anton Nostitz, and explains with admirable
clarity the position of the building in
Prague's architectural and theatrical
history.He reproducessome originalplans
andelevationswhich,takenwith otherearly illustrations, show exactly how the
theatre first looked, but it is regrettable
that thoughtwo plansshow scales,the latter are illegible in reproduction. New
scalesought surelyto have been supplied,

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