Today has been the hottest day of 2021 so far in England…and it has presented the ideal opportunity to indulge in portraits of our sunniest season from British composers. Here is the music in an hour-long Spotify playlist:
During the First World War, Frank Bridge escaped to the country – where he wrote Two Poems for Orchestra and the tone poem Summer, completed in 1916. It is a lovely piece, typically compact but creating a heat haze immediately through the strings. The enchanted atmosphere continues until one of his very best melodies is revealed.
Four of the best-known pieces by Frederick Delius set the hottest season to music. In A Summer Garden is the least common but arguably the most appealing. Delius uses the orchestra with an expert brush to paint the laziness of a summer day, with sultry harmonies and hazy, impressionistic textures. The woodwind add their bird calls, and lazy melodies flit around the orchestra, rising to an apex but then subsiding back into shelter.
Summer Evening, one of the three small tone poems completed in 1890, captures the moment where a hot day starts to subside, its lazy melodies suggesting the lingering heat on the ground and brightness in the sky, in spite of some lengthening shadows.
Later still in the day, Summer Night On The River (1911) captures the lazy lapping of the water and the tricks played by the dappled light, before slumber finally calls.
Meanwhile John Ireland, a master miniaturist for the piano, excels himself in Summer Evening (1919). This dreamy, four-minute piece, written just after the end of the First World War, has longing and contentment in equal measure.
Then we hear a brief fragment of Elgar, the softly lilting part song As Torrents In Summer, a Henry Wadsworth Longfellow setting from his stage work King Olaf.
Britten’s folksong arrangement The Last Rose of Summer is one of his most meaningful and magical. The deep piano chords set the scene for a beautiful melody, and a sad text – for in the second verse it is almost impossible not to draw parallels with the war, ‘where thy mates of the garden lie senseless and dead’.
Arnold Bax offers another post-First World War piece, his Summer Music dating from 1920, but this is another celebration of the season, depicting ‘a hot, windless June midday in some woodland place of Southern England’. There are some typically long-breathed melodies to add to the attractive woodwind scoring, and a lovely, restful close.
Finally Delius’ A Song Of Summer itself, conducted by the composer’s long-time devotee Sir Thomas Beecham. This later piece (1931) has a particularly rich palette, with songful oboe, flute and horn above dappled strings, before some more explicit folk references. Delius’ writing for orchestra has acquired more depth in the time since his previous three summer evocations, and – to this ear at least – the influence of Wagner and Debussy feels stronger than before.