Robin Milford (1903-1959)
The Organ Works
Imogen Morgan (organ)
rec. St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, Edinburgh, UK, no recording dates supplied
PRIORY PRCD1246 
There is a quiet tragedy to Robin Milford’s life that is marked by pain and loss rarely expressed. He belongs to that group of British 20th Century composers too easily dismissed by critics as epitomising the weak and watery banalities of the English Pastoral School evoking cowpats and muddy fields. Of course, if those critics chose to explore the actual music with a little more care a quite different narrative emerges. Milford was a pretty prolific composer – his last catalogued work, which is included in this recital, is the Rockingham Chorale Prelude and has the opus number 115. In the only study of any kind written by Ian Copley [Thames Publishing 1984] he is described as a “compulsive composer” with works almost continuously at various stage of planning or completion despite a life compromised by ill-health physical and mental, the death of an only child in a road accident aged six and never-ending financial concerns. By 1959, aged just 56 having received notification from his main publisher (Oxford University Press) that they would not be reprinting many of his works, facing up to the prospect of agonising ECT treatment for crippling headaches, struggling to come to terms with the recent deaths of two of his greatest friends and supporters; Gerald Finzi and Ralph Vaughan Williams, on December 29th 1959 Robin Milford wrote a note to his wife and over-dosed on asprin.
Biographical notes about Milford make much of his gentle and charitable nature and how he found comfort in his Anglo-Catholic faith to which he converted in 1940. He volunteered to serve in World War II but after only one week suffered a complete mental breakdown and was discharged. He was organist of Butcombe Parish Church from 1948-55 and it during this later period of his life that he produced most of the twenty two works for organ listed on the Milford Trust website. On this new and excellent disc Imogen Morgan offers eight of these individual or collected works. Previous CD releases made under the auspices of the Robin Milford Trust have included some of these works alongside arrangements and choral and solo songs. As far as I am aware this is the first and only disc dedicated to Milford’s original works for organ. Given Milford’s background as a parish organist himself and also the fact that many of these works are dedicated to his wife and/or friends and colleagues it should come as no surprise that these works have a personal and indeed often intimate scale appropriate to both the conception and likely execution of these works.
Certainly these are not overt display pieces techniques designed to show off the largest possible cathedral organ. Of course it does require consummate skill and musicianship as displayed here by Imogen Morgan to play these works with the clarity and simplicity of utterance that shows them in their best light. The great mistake is assessing composers such as Milford is to mistake simple for simplistic. Take for example Seven Seasonal Sketches Op.110 No.6 ‘In Dulci Jubilo’ [track 6] – on the page here – it looks simple to the point of dullness until you realise that the counter melody to the bass-line tune is written in the relative minor to the tune in the major and only when the pedals enter is the key ‘stabilised’ and that sense of arrival/release is rather wonderful. What is clear across all these works is the fastidious craft of Milford’s writing. For sure his harmony is steadfastly diatonic in a way that could be termed “old-fashioned” by the middle of the 20th century but he spices it with dissonances and skilful contrapuntal writing that is as pleasurable to listen to as it must be to play.
In the main the disc mixes up Milford’s treatments of existing melodies which are either called “Chorale Preludes” or are such in all but name with wholly original compositions which take epigrams as their point of creative departure. Aptly for the time of year this review was written, there are several works linked to the Advent Season. The first of these opens the disc and are the aforementioned Seven Seasonal Sketches Op.110. The useful and informative liner, written by Imogen Morgan alongside Peter Hunter of the Robin Milford Trust, describes these as being more brief treatments of existing melodies rather than full-blown chorale preludes. What they do share with much of the rest of the music here is a concision of scale. Morgan’s choice of registration throughout seems perfectly apt aided by the light clarity of her playing. The longest movement runs to just 2:14. Milford’s treatment of these familiar tunes ensures they are readily identifiable but is often quite quirky – No.5 The Holly and the Ivy is a case in point. I can imagine organists enjoying dipping into this set for any number of purposes sacred or secular. The two pieces that constitute Milford’s Op.85 are considerably more substantial in scale and intent. One curiosity; the liner and CD cover collectively title these Two Autumn Meditations whereas the published version on IMSLP and as listed on Trust website clearly calls them Two Harvest Meditations. These are examples of works where thematic material has been drawn in part from pre-existing melodies be they hymns or folksongs. But the way in which Milford handles that primary material makes them to all intents and purposes original pieces. The first Meditation – Rejoice O Land in God thy might [5:06] is one of the longest works on the disc and is one of the ‘biggest’ in terms of emotional range and technical demands too. The theme derived from the hymn does become clear but around that the music is restlessly chromatic and metrically fluid with mobile inner part writing which reaches a powerful fff climax around 3:13 which is superbly caught by Priory’s engineering and production team of Neil Collier and Will Sims. The second meditation Come all you worthy Christian men, based on a folksong collected by Cecil Sharp, is equally impressive with a sweep and drama that belies its 3:53 duration. Technically I would guess this is beyond the scope of most parish organists but the performance here has arresting power.
The two following Chorale Preludes come from opposite ends of Milford’s compositional career. The liner tells us that St. Columba Op.14 is probably the most performed Milford organ work – apparently forming part of many a wedding service in part no doubt to its brevity – just 1:45 – and its relative playability. Set against that is the very last composition mentioned before Rockingham Op.115. This pair of works tells us two things – in no way had Milford’s compositional skill diminished in later years but also how his musical style and vocabulary had remained essentially unaltered in the intervening years. So the great promise of the 1920’s became the “yesterday’s man” of the late 1950’s. Knowing Rockingham to be Milford’s final completed composition there is something especially poignant about the one last blaze of instrumental light retreating to a gentle yet warm conclusion so typical of both the man and his music. The Two Sea-Preludes Op.7 that follow are the earliest works on the disc and take their titles from Psalm verses. No.1 They that go down to the sea in ships [Psalm 107] is built upon an original tune that has a folk-like stepwise melodic shape. The liner points to some Holstian influences in the writing derived from lessons Milford had taken with the older composer. Again the work follows an arc common to many of these pieces – starting from a simple often monadic opening the piece builds to a sturdy climax before falling back to a reflective conclusion. No.2 The high hills are a refuge [Psalm 104] flows with a simple accompaniment serving the equally simple melody with reflective beauty. This is a gently meditative work of disarming serenity.
The next four pieces return to the Advent theme. The Three Christmas Pieces Op.19b were originally written for piano duet, later transcribed for wind strings and organ before being arranged for organ alone. Although gathered as a set they clearly work as standalone pieces with the central Variations on ‘The Coventry Carol’ instantly appealing. All three works manage to find a balance between attractive decoration of these much-loved carols without swamping the melodies with overly-complex detail. The closing Pastoral Dance on ‘On Christmas Night’ is another disarmingly charming work. The melody is very plainly given by the pedals while above it the manuals dance in a lilting compound time. As the carol repeats so Milford builds the complexity of the accompaniment and the harmony that surrounds it. But rather than a resounding closing climax, Milford’s carollers resume their dance and trip away into the distance. As with many of these works the following A Christmas Tune Op.75 was dedicated to Kirstie “for my Wife, with love”. The original melody again reflects the influence of folksong and is probably exactly the kind of work that critics of Milford and other similar composers have in mind when dismissing his work of little consequence. But to my ear where others perceive weakness I hear strength. The very unadorned and direct utterance of music such as this works precisely because of the undoubted sincerity of the writing – the unaffected emotional precision of the music is exactly why it is so moving.
The recital is completed by the set of Six Easter Meditations. In terms of duration they are the most extended works here and the liner describes them as “the most complex of all Milford’s organ works.” They were written over a period of three years which explains the different opus numbers within the set. For each work Milford chose an epigraph either biblical or poetic. The musical material is essentially original although Milford does reference some folksongs, an original Vaughan Williams song and finally in the sixth meditation O Come O Come Emmanuel. Clearly these six pieces work perfectly well individually and there is no requirement for them to be played or heard together. However, I have to say that when heard as a complete sequence for Easter the cumulative impact is even greater. The opening No.1 Op.65 ‘He is not here, but is risen…’ again follows the pattern of increasing complexity which reaches a cathartic climax before fading away to a reflective ending. No.2 Op65 ‘Joseph laid Jesus in the tomb’ has an explicitly meditative quality and here Milford skilfully works into the music quotations from Vaughan Williams’ Orpheus with his lute and the folksong How should I your true love know. These references are both subtle and apt and reflect Milford’s oneness with both the older composer and folksong. The third meditation Op71 ‘Love shall be our token takes its inspiration from the Christina Rosetti poem “Love came down at Christmas”. This is both one of the longest individual works on the disc – 6:05 – and also one of the most overtly virtuosic both technically and compositionally with the inner part writing complex in terms of its use of harmony and the handling of the various motifs. Again a striking climax leads to a calm and accepting ending. No.4 Op.71 ‘I love my love and love is no more’ is a moving and effective treatment of the Canadian folksong She’s like the swallow that flies so high. After an initial very simple statement of the tune it is repeated in ever more complex and dramatic ways. As the tune recedes under arabesquing semi-quaver figurations the unadorned folksong returns in a touchingly simple form. No.5 Op.82 ‘The Rose-King bleeds at Carbonek’ is the disc’s longest work at 8:18 and is in effect an extended sequence of variants on his original theme. Here the listener gains a good insight into the range musically and expressively of Milford’s Art – proof if any were really needed that he wrote music that is much more than twee or faux pastoralism. This is one of the few works that ends assertively. For No.6 Op.82 ‘For thou, O Lord, art with me still’ Milford returns to treatments of existing hymn tunes. This is the shortest of the set at 3:32 and also one of the most energetic with O Come O Come Emmanuel – usually associated with Christmas or Advent asserting itself at the climax before the music sinks back peacefully one last time. The set of works runs to a total of 32:23 so not far off half of the disc’s entire – and generous – time of 77:46.
I have no idea how many, if any, of these works are still regularly played by organists or for services. Imogen Morgan makes the very strongest possible case for them to retake their deserved place in the organ loft. The Milford discography is not exactly large and little of it is recent. Hopefully this genuinely excellent disc from Priory will help the Milford cause. The booklet is well written and contains much useful information. The full registration of the fine-sounding organ at St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral Edinburgh is listed and as mentioned before it has been superbly recorded by the Priory team. A companion disc or discs to complete this survey of Milford’s organ music would be warmly welcomed. Perhaps a re-evaluation of the organ music of the equally marginalised Alec Rowley would be in order too?
Seven Seasonal Sketches Op.110 (1956-57)
No.1 The Moon shines bright
No.2 On Christmas Night
No.3 Come, all you worthy gentlemen
No.4 O little One, Sweet
No.5 The Holly and the Ivy
No.6 In Dulci Jubilo
No.7 The Holy Well
Two Autumn Meditations Op.85 (1947)
No.1 Rejoice, O Land, in God thy might
No.2 Come all you worthy Christian men
Chorale Prelude on ‘St. Columba’ Op.14 (post 1928)
Chorale Prelude on ‘Rockingham’ Op.115 (1959)
Two Sea-Preludes Op.7 (1927)
No.1 They That go down to the sea in ships
No.2 The high hills are a refuge
Three Christmas Pieces Op.19b (pre-1930)
Chorale Prelude on ‘Unto Us a Boy is born’
Variations on ‘The Coventry Carol’
Pastoral Dance on ‘On Christmas Night’
A Christmas Tune Op.75 (1945)
Six Easter Meditations (1943-46)
No.1 Op.64 He is not here, but is risen
No.2 Op.65 Joseph laid Jesus in the tomb
No.3 Op.71 Love shall be our token
No.4 Op.71 I love my love and love is no more
No.5 Op.82 The Rose-King bleeds at Carbonek
No.6 Op.82 For thou, O Lord, art with me still
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