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Elgar: The Fringes of the Fleet

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Revivals of rare repertoire including Elgar’s The Fringes of the Fleet (first professional orchestral recording since 1917); John Ansell’s Plymouth Hoe and Windjammer overtures; Haydn Wood’s Manx Overture and Elizabeth of England

A new recording of music by Elgar is set to turn a spotlight on a forgotten but fascinating corner of British music and theatre history.

Elgar’s The Fringes of the Fleet – a patriotic song-cycle with words by the writer Rudyard Kipling – was the morale-raising headline act in variety theatres up and down the country, as World War One reached its climax in 1917. Premiered on 11 June 1917 at the London Coliseum, and conducted throughout its run by Elgar himself, the work was seen in a staging by four baritones appearing in fishermen’s costumes outside a pub. The four initial songs – ‘The Lowestoft Boat’, ‘Fate’s Discourtesy’, ‘Submarines’ and ‘The Sweepers’ – proved so popular that two weeks after the premiere, Elgar added a fifth, unaccompanied song, ‘Inside the Bar‘, with words by Sir Gilbert Parker.

The work immediately went on tour to theatres and music halls up and down the country – always with Elgar, battling illness, at the helm. The overwhelming success of The Fringes of the Fleet wherever it was seen throughout 1917 was only halted when Kipling, emotionally crippled by the death at the Front of his only son, decided he did not want his poetry used to glorify war, as he saw it, and – to Elgar’s dismay – forbade further performances. After a further run at London’s Palace Theatre in 1918, the work effectively disappeared.

In July 1917, the original four performers – Charles Mott, Frederic Henry, Harry Barratt and Frederic Stewart – went to The Gramophone Company’s headquarters at Hayes, Middlesex,  and recorded the original four songs, with Elgar; ‘Inside the Bar’ was recorded later.

Somm Recordings’ revival, on CD, of The Fringes of the Fleet is a significant document in understanding a forgotten era in the history of British music; the programme is the result of a six-year period of painstaking research by conductor Tom Higgins, who directs the Guildford Philharmonic in the recording. The 75th anniversary year of Elgar’s death is marked by a programme which includes a new arrangement of Elgar’s song, Big Steamers; originally a strophic song with piano accompaniment, Tom Higgins’s arrangement is scored for four unaccompanied baritones, utilising the same forces as Elgar used in The Fringes of the Fleet.  Elgar’s Elegy for Strings, written in 1909, receives a new – centenary – recording. Roderick Williams is the baritone soloist in orchestrations, by Tom Higgins, of John Ireland’s The Soldier and Blow out you Bugles, and Edward German’s version of Big Steamers. The composer Haydn Wood, who died 50 years ago, is commemorated in performances of A Manx Overture – The Isle of Mountains and Glens, and Elizabeth of England. Also featured are the overtures, Plymouth Hoe and The Windjammer, by the English light music composer John Ansell.

Tom Higgins said, ‘Among the considerable amount of music Elgar specifically wrote for the “war effort”, The Fringes of the Fleet is generally considered to be his best work. The revival of interest in the music sheds light on a period in Elgar’s creative life which generally suffers from neglect, but also on a genre seldom employed by the composer: secular songs with orchestra. This music has been overlooked for too long.’

The recording of The Fringes of the Fleet has been made possible by support from the R C Sheriff Trust, the South East Music Trust, Michael Hartnall, the Ralph Vaughan Williams Trust, the Ireland Trust, the Kipling Society, and Dr Robin Darwall-Smith.  

On This Recording

  1. Plymouth Hoe
  2. The Fringes of the Fleet: No. 1. The Lowestoft Boat
  3. The Fringes of the Fleet: No. 2. Fate’s Discourtesy
  4. The Fringes of the Fleet: No. 3. Submarines
  5. The Fringes of the Fleet: No. 4. The Sweepers
  6. The Fringes of the Fleet: No. 5. Inside the Bar
  7. Big Steamers: Big Steamers (arr. T. Higgins for vocal ensemble)
  8. 2 Songs to Poems by Rupert Brooke: No. 1. The soldier
  9. 2 Songs to Poems by Rupert Brooke: No. 2. Blow out, you bugles
  10. Elegy: Elegy, Op. 58
  11. A Manx Overture
  12. Big Steamers: Big Steamers (arr. T. Higgins for orchestra)
  13. The Windjammer
  14. Elizabeth of England