Denis ApIvor and His Contribution to British Opera and Ballet

Article excerpt

Denis ApIvor died in Robertsbridge., East Sussex, on 27 May 2004, aged 88. My objective here is not to offer a full appreciation of his achievement but to provide some insight into his contribution to British opera and ballet between 1947 and 1966, with especial regard to his operas Yerma and Ubu Roi.

DENIS ApIvoR was born near Dublin in 1916, of what may be most appropriately described as Anglicised Welsh parentage. He spent the first 17 years of his life in a state of national flux, residing for various lengths of time in Caernarfon North Wales, Oxford, Hereford and Aberystwyth before finally settling in London in 1934. Such displacement may go some way towards explaining the apparent chameleon-like musical personality of the composer, and in particular his refusal to be tied in stylistic terms to either a Welsh or English outlook. Indeed, a thorough acquaintance with Aplvor's output reveals that, if anything, there is a consistent leaning towards developments on the European mainland, rather than in Britain.

From an early age music played an important role in Aplvor's life, although from his parents' point of view it was never intended as a potential career. His musical education began at Christ Church Oxford with a chorister's scholarship in 1925 and continued at Hereford Cathedral School between 1926 and 1933. He received excellent training during these years in piano, organ and later the clarinet, becoming highly proficient on all three instruments. Guided tuition in composition was unavailable, however, and instead Aplvor made his own investigations through studying the scores of others and devouring such tomes as Berlioz's Treatise on instrumentation. An early obsession was the composer Peter Warlock, whose schizophrenic musical deviations between the jovial and the melancholy were replicated in Aplvor's songs of the 19303. Subsequent important influences, dating from Aplvor's first years in London (where he had relocated at his parents' instigation to train in medicine), were Delius, Van Dieren and Busoni, whose works he became familiar with through concert performances and the enthusiastic study of scores. It was also during this period that, through fortuitous contact with Warlock's close friend Cecil Gray, Aplvor received his first and only composition lessons. Gray generously paid for short periods of tuition with Patrick Hadley and Alan Rawsthorne, and also introduced Aplvor to Constant Lambert. Neither Hadley nor Rawsthorne seems to have made a great impression, although it is possible to discern an influence of Rawsthorne's peculiar approach to harmony in at least three of Aplvor's works of the 19405. ' Lambert on the other hand was a revelation, introducing Aplvor to jazz, through his Rio Grande, and European cosmopolitanism through his book, Music ho!.

Evidence of Aplvor's inclinations towards the theatrical may be traced to his earliest compositions, in which he was repeatedly drawn to literature as a stimulus to his musical imagination. Between 1933 and 1939 he produced over 30 solo songs, with texts drawing upon 15th-century mysticism, 16th-century love poetry, bawdy lyrics, 19th-century gothic poetry and the literature of the British fin-de-siècle. In musical terms, such texts provoke the exploration of a broad psychological panorama, at the heart of which is an intuitive and highly adaptable late Romantic chromatic style. Aplvor's remarkable choral-orchestral setting of TS Eliot's The hollow men, completed under Rawsthorne's guidance in 1939, marked a decisive break with song-writing and offered the opportunity to experiment on a broader dramatic canvas. In this five-movement work, Aplvor, through an innovative self-styled language of interval symbolism, brings the predicament of Eliot's dilapidated protagonists vividly to life. There is much more than mere text setting here. Each movement is a stage in what is essentially a cynical reworking of the journey of Gerontius - a distinctive musical landscape within which the spiritual hopes and fears of the hollow men are laid bare. …


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