Milner: First Symphony & Variations for Orchestra – BBC SO – CC4317


“This CD offers a good introduction to the music of the composer whose personal reticence in that capacity undoubtedly contributed to his music’s unjust neglect”

“A welcome, and, in its way, significant reissue”


My Variations for Orchestra were composed during 1957-58, and first performed in the 1959 Cheltenham Festival conducted by Sir John Barbirolli. They are not variations in the baroque, classical, or romantic meanings of the term: although the 15th-century melody Es ist ein’ Ros’ entsprungen provides almost all the work’s material, its rhythm, barring and form are often ignored. Instead, the notes of the tune’s two phrases (which in the original make an AABA form) provide a basic melodic pattern which is used additionally in its inversion, retrograde, and retrograde-inversion forms. The music quotation gives the original tune, with the derived note-patterns a,b,c,d.

Although this compositional process may seem to be derived from Schoenbergian serialism, the work is neither atonal or serial. The variations are arranged in groups to provide a quasi-symphonic structure. Variations 1-5 malce up a first-movement sonata form; Variations 6-10 a slow movement; and Variations 11-15 a finale with coda… While the gradual unfolding of the implications of the thematic material stands on its own and needs no extra-musical justification, the initial impetus for the work was provided by a “programme”: the devotion known as the Rosary whose 15 so-called “mysteries” consist of meditations on events in the lives of Christ and His Mother.

Group 1: the Joyful Mysteries. Variation 1, Lento: the Annunciation to Mary. Variation 2, Allegro gioioso: Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth. Variation 3, Andante quasi Berceuse: the Birth of Jesus. Variation 4, Allegro alia marcia: the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. Variation 5, Allegro scherzando: the finding of the boy Jesus in the Temple.

Group 2: the Sorrowful Mysteries. Variation 6, Tema al Rovescio: Jesus’ agony in the garden of Gethsemane. Variation 7, Pochissimo piu mosso: Jesus scourged. Variation 8. Adagio molto e doloroso: Jesus mocked and crowned with thorns. Variation 9, L’istesso tempo: Jesus carries his cross to Calvary. Variation 10, L’istesso tempo: Jesus dies on the Cross. Group 3: the Glorious Mysteries. Variation 11, Ochetto: Trionfale con moto e ben ritmico: the Resurrection. Variation 12, Allegrissimo: the Ascension. Variation 13, L’istesso tempo: the Descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles at Pentecost. Variation 14, L’istesso tempo: the Assumption of Mary into heaven. Variation 15, Lento: Mary Queen of Heaven.

My first Symphony was composed during 1965-1971, being several times interrupted by work on other compositions. Commissioned by the BBC, it was first performed 1972 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir John Pritchard. While it has no “programme”, something of its character may be suggested by the quotation from Keats’ Endymion which was much in mind while I worked on the opening bars:

Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth

Of noble natures, of the gloomy days;

Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkened ways

Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,

Some shape of beauty…..

Its 7 sections, played without breaks, are based on the conflict and eventual reconciliation of 2 widely-contrasted themes. Both are heard twice in the opening introductory section. Section 2, Presto con fuoco, has some resemblance to a symphonic first movement. There are two groups of themes connected by a transition, a middle section making much use of hockets, and a recapitulation. But the order of events in the last is far from normal: the transition theme is recapitulated first, then the second group followed by an abbreviated and condensed first group which leads to a repeat of the final bars of section 1.

In Section 3, Piu largo, the chief material is based on an inversion of Theme 1. The resulting lyrical slow movement leads to Section 4, Allegro, in which contrasted instrumental groups exploit various aspects of the two main themes. Section 5, Piu largo, a variation of Section 3, leads to Section 6, an intensification of Section 4. This rises to a climax on the material at the end of Theme A as presented in Section 1. But theme B intervenes massively beating Theme A down. Nevertheless in Section 7 Theme A re-emerges and after further expansion is received triumphantly by a joyous Theme B which finally merges with it.

Anthony Milner was born in Bristol in 1925 and went from Douai School, Woolhampton, Berkshire, to a scholarship at the Royal College of Music, where he studied piano with Herbert Fryer and theory with R O Morris. He studied composition with Matyas Seiber. From thence until 1962 he was tutor in Music Theory and History at Morley College, London. In 1954 he was appointed as Extension Lecturer in Music for the University of London. In 1965 he was appointed Lecturer in Music at King’s College, University of London, moving to a Senior Lectureship in Music at Goldsmith’s College, University of London in 1971, becoming Principal Lecturer in 1974. In September 1980 he was appointed Principal Lecturer at the Royal College of Music.

Review: I – Musical Opinion Magazine (December 2002) Anthony Milner died on 22 September in Spain. He was 77. His obituary is in the early pages of this issue and welcomes Claudio’s timely reissue of these two digitally re-mastered by Colin Attwell. They were recorded in BBC’s Maida Vale Studio 1 on 11 November 1984 with the highly experienced Andrew Keener as Producer. The Conductor Lionel Friend was one of Milner’s students and brings a special understanding to these scores.The BBCSO obviously relished the craftsmanship in Milner’s scoring and the Leader, Morris Brett, ensured that the strings were warm and silky.

The Variations for Orchestra were first heard at the 1959 Cheltenham Festival and I well remember Sir John Barbirolli virtually bouncing onto the platform before they began. To some extent the 15 variations, divided into groups of five, offer a single structure, three movement symphony, strongly inspired by the Rosary whose so called “mysteries” consist of meditations on events in the lives of Christ and His Mother.

This may have been the impetus for, and background to, the work, and although the composer details the event with which each variation is concerned, the score is best heard as an abstract continuous piece.

The score of Milner’s First Symphony is headed by a quotation by John Keats’ Endymion and is in seven uninterrupted sections, thematically integrated and leading to a remarkably triumphant finale.
This CD offers a good introduction to the music of the composer whose personal reticence in that capacity undoubtedly contributed to his music’s unjust neglect.

Perhaps we can now hope for further CDs possibly from the recordings which lie in the BBC’s archives. Denby Richards.

Review: II – MusicWeb International (January 2018)

Half Centennial: Revisiting Anthony Milner’s Chamber Symphony Anthony Milner is often regarded as a composer of music largely inspired by the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, his musical achievement was far wider, with a fair number of ‘absolute’ works, including the present Chamber Symphony, op.24 (1968).

Milner was born in Bristol on 13 May 1925 into a devout Christian family. After schooling at the Benedictine-run Douai School in Berkshire, he studied at the Royal College of Music with Herbert Fryer and R.O. Morris. There were further lessons from the émigré composer Mátyás Seiber. Much of Milner’s career was spent teaching: at Morley College, where he befriended Michael Tippet, the extramural department of music at London University, King’s College, Goldsmith College and the Royal College of Music. Milner had a strong transatlantic connection with appointments at Loyola University and the University of Western Ontario. Anthony Milner died in Spain on 22 September 2002.

The Chamber Symphony was composed during 1967/68. As the title implies, it was scored for a small orchestra with no trumpets, trombones or percussion. Other works written around this time included the Festival Te Deum commissioned by the Leicestershire Schools Music Festival as well as several anthems.

The first performance of the Chamber Symphony was given on 31 March 1968 in the Woodford Green Town Hall during the final concert of the Woodford Music Society season. The New Cantata Orchestra of London was conducted by James Stobart. Dominic Gill reviewing the concert for The Financial Times (1 April 1968) wrote that ‘the Chamber Symphony is a short work, barely 15 minutes long…its three movements are in no sense avant-garde; the music is mild, serious, honest and straightforward, not overtly derivative – though one senses a kind of compromise between Vaughan Williams and the second Viennese school. It is lyrical: not the harsh lyricism of Schoenberg’s [two] ‘Kammersymphonie’, but something more childlike and comfortable.’ Whether Schoenberg’s ‘exemplars’ would be regarded as ‘harsh lyricism’ in 2018 is a matter of opinion. These (Schoenberg) are well-constructed works that are dynamic and often quite beautiful. It is also unfair to accuse Milner’s Chamber Symphony of being ‘childlike.’ The work is mature, well-constructed and masterfully orchestrated. Although, I do concede that there is a charming innocence about much of this music, especially in the final movement.

Gill (op.cit.) describes the progress of the music: ‘The first movement is a good-humoured allegro, developed from the material in the opening bars, followed by a denser – and lonely – ‘adagio’, in which the orchestral playing several times obscured what must have been a high point – as, for example, the rather beautiful horn figuration taken up by the flute that slides wistfully to the oboe at the movement’s end. The final ‘allegro’ is a virtuoso rondo, rhythmically the most interesting of the three, with some Stravinskian textures that work up to a strong climax.’ The Financial Times review concludes by suggesting that ‘the orchestra…barely held it together. Judgment will have to wait for a much more definitive performance.’

The New Cantata Orchestra of London and James Stobart gave at least one other performance of the Chamber Symphony. This was on 25 April 1968 at the St Pancras Town Hall, Euston Road, London in a Redcliffe Concert of British Music. There is a short review of this concert in the Daily Telegraph (26 April 1968) ‘I.A.’ began by noting that the concert had some unfamiliar music. It opened with Haydn’s Symphony No.83 ‘The Hen’, which is hardly the best-known (37 current recordings compared to 94 for the Symphony No.94 ‘Surprise Symphony’). This was followed by Alan Rawsthorne’s accomplished Divertimento for chamber orchestra (1961-62) and Francis Routh’s Violin Concerto. This latter work was receiving its premiere: the soloist was Yfrah Neaman. The final work in the concert was the first ‘London’ performance of Milner’s Chamber Symphony.

I.A. wrote that Milner’s work was in ‘another class’ to the ‘meander[ing]’ Routh. He thinks that in the Symphony ‘sometimes…the outer movements seem to be musicians’ music, not lyrical enough to take flight, but then by contrast, the middle, slow movement did just that, with woodwind weavings and a MusicWeb International January 2018 memorable free-ranging horn tune.’ Milner’s score ‘showed skilled planning, writing and imagining.’ It seems that the New Cantata Orchestra of London and James Stobart had sorted out some of the gremlins present in the Woodford premiere. I.A. writes that the ‘woodwind and brass (horns) were equal to the demands made on them’ but the ‘string playing made one want to hear this work again,

with a virtuoso body like the English Chamber Orchestra.’ Writing about the same concert, Ernest Chapman (London Musical Events, 23 June 1968) suggested that the Chamber Symphony was ‘… expertly written with a slow movement notable for its sustained melodic impulse. The outer movements, while always keeping the ball in play, could have done with more of this poetic element.’

The looked-for definitive account probably came with a Radio Three broadcast made on 28 October 1983 by the Northern Sinfonia, conducted by Howard Williams. It was the work’s first, and possibly last, broadcast performance. Listening to this recording on YouTube, reveals a Symphony that is approachable, satisfying and, in my opinion, an important addition to the symphonic repertoire of the 1960s. The ‘adagio’ is quite simply gorgeous. As such, I feel that there should be a modern reading of this work made available, or at least a remastered issue of the 1983 broadcast.

Finally, Paul Conway (MusicWeb International 3 February 2003) has written that ‘…the Chamber Symphony of 1968…whose cool spikily expressionist style is articulated by an ensemble of modest proportions…is characterised by pungent rhythms and idiomatic solo woodwind writing.’ This pithily sums up the Symphony’s impact. Milner was never afraid to make use of expanded tonality, as in this present Chamber Symphony. On the other hand, he was adept at intensifying this apparent limitation to his requirements, and produce work that is always fresh, vibrant and satisfying. He was never a ‘slave’ to the prevailing avant-garde.  John France.

With thanks to Paul Conway for his invaluable assistance in preparing this essay.

Review: III – International Record Review Magazine. Recorded with support from the Arts Council of Great Britain. Producer Andrew Keener. Engineers James Hamilton, Francisco Sancha. Date November 11th, 1984.

Those who recall Anthony Milner’s arrival on the scene in the early 1950s with his stunning cantata Salutatio Angelica, followed several years later by his impressive The City of Desolation, know that many astute listeners then regarded him as a man to watch. He has never been a prolific composer, but he has always been a fastidious and accomplished one, a gifted and genuine creative figure. Above all, he is a serious artist: there is nothing meretricious or unworthy in his output, and these two large orchestral works are his outstanding compositions in the genre. Curiously, the Variations, Op. 14 (completed in 1958) seems a more genuinely symphonic piece than the Symphony, in so far as the underlying tonal basis is concerned. As the work is based upon a fifteenth-century melody, this no doubt accounts for this aspect of the score. It impressed me when I heard its first BBC broadcast and it does so still.

It is an original structure; the variations are grouped into three ‘movements’, or sets, of what the composer terms ‘mysteries’ — suggested by the Catholic devotion of the Rosary, wherein the variations reflect meditations on events in the lives of Christ and His Mother. This may have been the impetus for, and background to, the work, and although the composer details the event with which each variation is concerned, the score is best heard as an abstract continuous piece.

The First Symphony was completed in 1971, yet shows virtually no stylistic change from (still less ‘advance’ upon — a largely irrelevant notion) the Variations. It is in seven continuous sections and is concerned with a thorough working of two contrasting themes which are eventually merged in the triumphant closing section. Both works will appeal to the music-lover who responds to a genuinely musical challenge, rather than purely surface technicolour — and are certainly worth close attention.

These recordings originally appeared on an LP in 1984. They still sound excellent: the performances, under the admirable Lionel Friend, are very good indeed. The difficult ending of the second part of the Variations is brilliantly done and the peroration to the Symphony is magnificently played. Milner himself provides the informative booklet note. A welcome, and, in its way, significant reissue. Robert Matthew-Walker.