The London Promenade Orchestra version
Analysed by Robert Walton
I first heard Caprice for Strings quite by chance in 1953 on a radio programme in New Zealand from 1YA Auckland. Because there was no back announcement, it remained unknown until I wrote to the station for information. Until then, the only Edward White composition I knew was TheRunawayRocking-Horse, the first ever light orchestral number that hit me for six in 1947. For me it was the most important composition in the genre since the million selling hit Holiday forStrings burst upon the scene in 1943. Caprice for Strings on the other hand, was recorded in 1946 but because it wasn’t commercially released, remained something of a ‘dark’ horse! Compared to TheRunawayRocking-Horse, it seemed almost classical in style but I had no idea it was the work of White. (Strangely enough, 1953 was also the year of another string-only feature Scrub,Brothers, Scrub, a clone of Caprice for Strings. According to the composer Ken Warner, Scrub, Brothers, Scrub refers to articulating repeated notes by means of a back and forth movement of the bow across the string. Hence the word “scrubbing!”)
The caprice or capriccio was a term first applied to some 16th century Italian madrigals but is now usually free in form and of a lively character. A typical capriccio is fast, intense and often virtuosic in nature. That seems to describe Caprice for Strings in a nutshell. It’s one of the classiest busy busy tunes in the light orchestral canon. So join me as I attempt to dissect it, trying to keep up with this frantic melody.
The first thing that occurred to me about such a ‘serious’ composition is the unexpected use of the rhythm guitar throughout the piece - virtually unheard of in the London Promenade Orchestra’s repertoire. To be honest I never noticed it the first time, possibly because of the poor quality of primitive wireless, which no doubt accounts for my original impression of a more classical arrangement. Anyway, the very presence of a guitar immediately reveals White’s dance band credentials in much the same way that Robert Farnon’s jazz roots are evident in his music. It’s a very demanding workout for strings, calling for absolute precision. No resting on one’s laurels and certainly no room for any “dead wood” amongst the players, which would have stuck out like a sore thumb. Just one player not pulling his or her weight can totally ruin a recording.
Of all the hyperactive compositions in light music, Caprice for Strings has to be one of the most difficult to get your head around. With all those fast notes in such a restricted range, the melody takes a bit of figuring out, but as soon as you’ve got the general idea it stays with you. In the key of G, this tight tune sounds to all intents and purposes like the rhythm of an automatic weapon. The note, which gives the phrase its character, is that of the constantly recurring E flat. Come to think of it, with appropriate words it could almost be adapted into an early form of rap! Heaven forbid, I hear you cry!
In the first break, arco violins go into pizzicato mode whilst the lower strings still bowed answer from below with some vital punctuation. Away we go again with all strings restored to arco, but before we know it, yet another break. (And I promised there would be no idleness in this exercise!)
Now for some welcome light relief from all this labour intensive concentration as the violins come up with three lots of beautiful broad downward brushstrokes, each time heading for the heights. This was the undoubted highlight of Caprice for Strings, the moment the piece came to life. Like The Runaway Rocking-Horse, Teddy White could always be relied upon to dress up his compositions freshly and imaginatively. As ever, the eager strings are in the wings waiting to dive in at the exact moment.
Then, serving as a complete contrast, the strings are given a new lease of life with a lovely lyrical tune of their own providing its own decorations as well as bending the melody when it takes their fancy. Finally it’s back to the start for a rerun of the wizardry of White bringing this brisk Bach-ish blend of bustling busyness to an abrupt close.
You may have noticed 2016 happens to be the 70th year of the creation of Caprice for Strings. So let’s celebrate the birth of one of the early masterpieces from the Light Orchestral Hall of Fame by simply giving this pioneering piece of pure poetry in motion an extra listen!
"Caprice For Strings" is available on "The Golden Age of Light Music: Grandstand: Production Music Of The 1940s” -- Guild Records GLCD 5220
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