Cliffe Symphony No 1; Orchestral picture: Cloud and Sunshine

Here’s a discovery: a stylish first symphony from a Briton so shamefully ignored

Author: 
Ivan March

Cliffe Symphony No 1; Orchestral picture: Cloud and Sunshine

  • Symphony No. 1
  • Orchestral picture: Cloud and Sunshine

Frederic Cliffe (of whom, I confess, I had never heard until now) was born in Bradford in 1857, a few months before Elgar. He studied composition with Sir Arthur Sullivan and was later on the professorial staff of the newly formed Royal College of Music. He had a comparatively low profile, yet his First Symphony caused a sensation when it was premièred in London in 1889, being described as ‘fresh in style; full of glow and spirit, and delightfully melodious throughout’.

It is an astonishing achievement for a fledgling composer and it was my symphonic discovery (late in the year) of 2003. It quite bowled me over by its fluency, confidence and imaginative scoring – the chorale-like writing for horns and deep brass would not disgrace Wagner. Its style is eclectic, of course, but the influences are fully absorbed, and I can best describe it as very like an undiscovered early symphony of Dvorák (and better integrated and constructed than that composer’s First).

The strong opening theme with its stabbing, rhythmic duplet gives way to a heart-warming secondary theme, and that same lyrical memorability dominates the slow movement, with its cor anglais tune and a passionate climax which brings material later transformed into the apotheosis of the finale. There is a brief scherzo between the first two movements which offers a whiff of Bruckner, but is altogether lighter with its undulating syncopations.

What is so striking throughout is Cliffe’s confident sequential development of his ideas – he is a true symphonist. The finale has a Mendelssohnian flair and grace, producing another endearing secondary theme and moving through an impressive contrapuntal development to its majestic finale. The Orchestral Picture is in a similar style and equally assured and inventive, though not as memorable as the symphony.

Why then has this remarkable music disappeared? Christopher Fifield, who directs these powerful performances, suggests in his booklet-notes that Stanford’s jealousy prevented its continued exposure when he read in The Musical Times that Cliffe’s Symphony was ‘one of the most remarkable works of its class produced for many years’. Stanford’s own Irish Symphony was only two years old and as director of the Leeds triennial festival, Stanford was in a position to prevent performances of Cliffe’s music, although it was heard in London and Bournemouth. But now this superb Malmö performance will surely put the symphony on the ‘gramophone map’; there remains other music, including a Violin Concerto, to be rediscovered.

Meanwhile, if you like unfamiliar late-Romantic symphonies, you cannot do better than this. I enjoyed it greatly, and shall return to it with pleasure. The recording is excellent, full-blooded and convincingly balanced in a concert hall acoustic

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