TippettSometimes so-called “academic” composers are derided for writing music that might be technically brilliant but has little “natural” feeling or inspiration. R O Morris (1886-1948) should be a good example. Today he’s remembered primarily as a teacher of counterpoint (at the Royal College of Music) and a writer of text books. His pupils included Gerald Finzi, Constant Lambert, Edmund Rubbra and Michael Tippett. There’s just one tiny work of his that many people will know today, the anthem “Love Came Down at Christmas”.

But Morris enjoyed a ten year period of creativity as a composer, roughly between 1922 and 1932. Finzi, at least, thought highly of his music, and in an obituary piece (quoted in Diana McVeagh’s biography) he chose four pieces representing Morris at his most approachable – Corrina’s Maying for chorus and orchestra, the Concerto Piccolo, the Suite for Chamber Orchestra and the six Canzoni Ricertati for strong orchestra or string quartet – with the Toccata and Fugue for Orchestra at the other extreme and the Symphony in D (first performed on January 1, 1934 at the Queen’s Hall) somewhere in the middle. We learn from the other Finzi biography (from Stephen Banfield) that the last of the Canzoni Ricertati was rated his “one genuine masterpiece” and described as a “grave and lovely” work. But in the early 1930s Morris stopped composing and would never talk about his own work from that point onwards.

There’s little chance of hearing any of these pieces today – most of the manuscripts lie unpublished and hidden away in various libraries. But incredibly, a recording of the last Canzoni Ricertati by the Lindsay String Quartet does exist. I’ve been listening to it over the past few weeks and find it beautiful. It’s made up of three, 3 minute sections of intense fugal and canonic writing, but using themes that have the flavor of mournful folk melodies, closely related to each other. Each of the sections begins with a main theme that is immediately used against itself, and then a secondary theme is introduced around half way through and combined with the first. Towards the end there are sequential passages where aching false relations (influenced by the “golden age” of English counterpoint from the 16th century, on which Morris was an authority) predominate. Such passages recall the music of Peter Warlock, and as with most of Warlock’s work, these are miniatures. But their emotional impact and sheer density makes them seem much longer. They aren’t online anywhere I can find, so I can’t provide a link, but the CD is available and I encourage you to seek it out.

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