Following on from my ‘Twenty Pieces of Music Evoking London’ post, I make no apology for re-presenting this short essay about Phyllis Tate’s ‘London Fields’ Suite for orchestra. It remains one of my favourite pieces of light music. I have reviewed a few facts, made several small changes and provided a link to YouTube.
It is unfortunate that Phyllis Tate (1911-87) is best known these days –where she is known at all- for her ‘light music’ suite ‘London Fields.’ The 2008 release from Lyrita (SRCD 214) does not bill this music as ‘light’ –it simply describes it as one of the contents of a ‘Box of Delights.’ This is not the place to examine Tate’s catalogue, but suffice to say that she wrote a fair number of ‘serious’ works – including an opera, The Lodger, a Saxophone Concerto and a Sonata for clarinet and cello. Other works that could be considered as belonging to the ‘light’ genre include Songs Without Words for orchestra, Illustrations (1969) for brass band and the Lyric Suite for piano duet.
‘London Fields’ was commissioned for the BBC Light Music Festival of 1958 and was duly heard alongside new works by John Addison, Geoffrey Bush, Hubert Clifford, Alun Hoddinott and Iain Hamilton. It is a concert I am minded to investigate further in a subsequent post.
There are four movements in this Suite which lasts for some 13 minutes: 1. Springtime in Kew, 2. The Maze at Hampton Court, 3. St James’s Park – a lakeside reverie and 4. Hampstead Heath –rondo for roundabouts.
The opening movement succeeds in making the listener imagine a brisk walk in Kew on a lovely May morning – crocuses and daffodils, perhaps. There is an air of optimism from the first note to the last as the armchair traveller explores in their mind this stunning garden – with maybe the odd glimpse of the Thames.
In the ‘scherzo’ Tate departs from the ‘Eric Coates-ian’ model that infuses this Suite – here is a playful game, children scampering around Hampton Court maze desperately trying to get out before their friends do. She makes use of a ‘whirlwind xylophone solo’ which reminded Lewis Foreman of images of the frenetic ‘Keystone Cops’ romping through Hampton Court Maze.
The slow movement is the loveliest part of this suite. For anyone who has wandered beside the lake in St James’s Park – either with their lover, or at least dreaming of them, it is a perfect evocation. Is it a ‘misty summer dawn’ or a warm spring evening that the oboe hints at? There is a slightly livelier middle section that suggests a brief interlude watching the swans and the ducks on the lake. The main theme returns and brings this movement to a close in a heat haze - with a final ‘quack’ from one of the ducks!
The last movement, ‘Hampstead Heath’ is subtitled a ‘Rondo for Roundabouts’ which is written in waltz time. Ketèlbey who wrote a piece called ‘Appy ‘Ampstead as a part of his Cockney Suite which may be relevant to this movement. It is an enjoyable caper that brings the work to a fitting close. And lastly, it does not take much imagination to detect some of the wit and enthusiasm of Malcolm Arnold’s more ‘popular’ tunes.
The reviewer in the Musical Times (August 1958) noted that ‘despite a slender output, [Miss Tate] has won distinction in the realm of ‘serious’ music, and I was interested to hear how she would fare when producing a work “whose first and conscious aim” was “to please and entertain.” She fared well.’ He suggested that parts of the Suite owed a little too much to Eric Coates. However, he felt that it left ‘a pleasing impression, especially the middle two movements…’
My own impression of this Suite is of a well-structured, finely-scored piece that is fully able to suggest to the imagination the pictures that the titles of each movement is meant to suggest. This is truly light music at its best.
Hear Phyllis Tate’s ‘London Fields’ played by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Barry Wordsworth on Box of Delights Lyrita SRCD 214
There is also a version on White Line CDs (CDWHL2138) played by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by Gavin Sutherland. This disc includes other ‘London inspired’ music by Paul Lewis, Philip Lane, David Watts, Haydn Wood, Angela Morley and Christopher Gunning.