Monday, 22 January 2018

A.J. Potter: Rhapsody under a High Sky for orchestra

I mentioned in my New Year (2018) post that I had never come across the Irish composer, A.J. Potter. I promised a further exploration of his music in a later submission.

The piece of music that first struck me was his gorgeous Rhapsody under a High Sky which was included on an interesting Marco Polo CD released in 1996. The Rhapsody was the only piece by Potter on this disc of ‘Romantic Irish Music’. Other works included Three Irish Pictures by Gerald Victory, Padraig O’ Connor’s Introspect, John Larchet’s Nocturne for orchestra ‘By the Waters of Moyle,’ Arthur Duff’s Echoes of Georgian Dublin and Sean O Riada’s The Banks of Sullane. I found all these pieces attractive, enjoyable and often quite moving. They deserve the attention of music lovers, especially those with a taste for romanticism and impressionism.

A.[rchibald] J.[ames] Potter was born in Belfast on 22 September 1918 and died at Greystones, County Wicklow on 5 July 1980. In his early years he moved to Kent where he was brought up by relatives. Potter gained entry to the choir school at All Saints, Margaret Street in London and subsequently to Clifton College in Bristol. He won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music, where he was a pupil of RVW. After war service, Potter moved to Dublin where he was Vicar Choral at St Patrick's Cathedral.  In 1953, he was awarded a Doctorate of Music from Trinity College. For much of his career he was Professor of Composition at the Royal Irish Academy of Music in Dublin, retiring from this post in 1973.  A.J. Potter died on 5 July 1980, aged only 62 years.

In 1951, Radio Éireann had offered the Carolan Prize to encourage native Irish composers. This was for a short orchestral work that would be performed by the Radio Éireann Symphony Orchestra. The prize money was £100 and the competition was adjudicated by Sir Arnold Bax. Potter submitted the present Rhapsody as well as a humorous Overture to a Kitchen Comedy. He won first prize.
It has been suggested by Patrick Zuk in his 2007 thesis ‘A.J. Potter (1918-1980): The career and creative achievement of an Irish composer in social and cultural context’, that the musical material of the Rhapsody may have originated in student compositions prepared for RVW at the Royal College of Music between 1936-8. There is no proof of this: no sketches have survived.
The CD liner notes advocate that the inspiration of the Rhapsody were the paintings of Belfast-born Paul Henry (1876-1958). According to Artnet, Henry’s work displays ‘inventive landscape paintings: lush vistas of the West of Ireland, replete with towering cumulonimbus clouds and calm lakes and channels surrounded by rural villages, landscapes, and geography endemic to …[Ireland]. Artistic influences included Jean Francois Millet, Paul Cezanne and Paul Gauguin. Also, critical to his style, was a period of study at James McNeil Whistler’s studio in Paris, during 1898.

Back to Potter’s Rhapsody under a High Sky. If the putative listener needs any recommendation it is that Potter was, as mentioned above, a student of Ralph Vaughan Williams. The present work has echoes of the elder composer, most especially of his In the Fen Country, The Lark Ascending and the Norfolk Rhapsodies. On the other hand, Potter does not appear to quote any actual folk-song, although there are modal inflections and the melodies do have the sweep and flexibility of folksong. 

In a ‘draft’ programme note, cited in Zuk (op.cit.) the composer wrote that the Rhapsody ‘pictured the idyllic beauty of Irish scenery. Particularly that of Connemara, Achill and the west, where the characteristically Irish high sky, blue mountains, white cottages and wind-ruffled waters were so effectively captured in paint and on canvas by that prince of landscape painters, Paul Henry.’ 
Potter then remarks on the formal style of the music. 'It is a tone-picture where the ‘basic format of melody, trio and melody is prolonged and concluded by a rhapsodical violin solo whose soaring notes carry the [mind], ear and eye across that ruffled water, over the blue mountains and into the fading distance of the high Irish sky.’
Musical tropes in the Rhapsody include parallel triadic motion that immediately reminds the listener of Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony with the clashes presenting a subtle bitonality. The orchestration is effective, with some beautiful Debussy-like moments for woodwind and muted strings.
Bax, in a note to the composer, suggested that Potter may come to feel that the work was too long. Listening to this piece in 2018 has the opposite effect on me: I wish that this beautiful music would go on forever. It seems to sum up the Irish Landscape with a senstive poetic response to it.  

A.J. Potter: Rhapsody under a High Sky for orchestra can be found on Marco Polo 8.223804: it has been deleted from the catalogue as a CD. However, it is available from Amazon as a download and as streaming. It is also included in Naxos’ own Music Library. 

1 comment:

riflet said...

Thanks for writing about this piece that you just discovered. Your thoughtful, sensitive listening and the research you undertake to flesh out the composer and the composition are a model for music writers.