13 Jul

Caprice for Strings

By  Robert Walton
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(Edward White)
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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Read 1261 times Last modified on Wednesday, 13 July 2016 12:24

2 comments

  • William Zucker posted by William Zucker Tuesday, 11 October 2016 09:23

    In response to Bob Walton's analysis of Edward White's "Caprice for Strings," and my comment on his analysis, Tony Clayden has graciously offered to share an obscure recording of this piece, and has provided an interesting origin of it.

    I have listened to this alternate version, and I must say, I was quite pleasantly surprised by what I was hearing. I was very concerned about its viability because of described tempo changes in various parts of the piece compared to the original. As structural integrity is such an important factor for me, I felt that these frequent changes might tend to fracture this continuity and cohesion that I always seek, but my concerns in that regard were immediately allayed when I noted that the composer, in his supposedly original version, very skilfully connected these diverse sections together so that it did not give the impression of erratic construction at all.

    The introduction, not in the familiar version, was made to lead into the main section very carefully, so that the latter followed on very logically. And as for the middle trio section, though in a different tempo and pulse, this was also very carefully introduced so that I did not feel any sense of irrelevancy or discontinuity. The experience overall for me was much like it was many, many years ago when I first heard Robert Farnon's original version of "Journey Into Melody" with its extended introduction. That gave me a whole new (and quite welcome) perspective on that old classic, and my experience here was almost precisely the same. I find myself almost preferring this version to the familiar one (in respectful disagreement with Bob), and in both instances I would much like to see these alternate versions kept alive.

    The slower tempo of this rendition also worked better for me. Aside from this factor better tying the diverse tempos together, the sound was somewhat clearer to the point that I now could in some spots actually hear the guitar effects, although not throughout the piece as Bob claims (though the sound quality may have played a part here). I will add that the "country and western" style of the main idea almost suggests to me that a banjo might be called for - what does anyone think about this? Also, some of the virtuosic string writing reminds me somewhat of a portion of Andre Kostelanetz's setting of Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm." Both of these are rather frenetic in character, although paradoxically all of these things that I describe seemed to present themselves to me more directly with the slower tempo of the main section.

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  • William Zucker posted by William Zucker Thursday, 14 July 2016 12:45

    The one thing I immediately empathize with in this article is the commercial unavailability of the selection at the time it appeared. Bob ahs mentioned this sort of thing before and it was a matter of complete frustration for me at the time.
    I too found myself contacting broadcasting stations to learn the true identity of a piece that intrigued me to the point that I wanted to learn more about it and as a result become far better acquainted with it. Perhaps I should have made these contacts a bit more persistently as there are to this day selections I clearly remember having heard that I do not have this information on, and always have hopes that such information will somehow emerge as a result of my fortuitously having stumbled on the selection, even (dare I suggest) somehow included in one of the forthcoming Guild series releases!

    That said, I will turn my attention to the selection here, which is a first hearing for me, and not one of those that was used by any broadcasting station for signature or background purposes, at least in my own experience. Edward White is a name in light music not at all familiar to most on this side of the Atlantic, and the only one of his compositions I am thoroughly familiar with is "Paris Interlude," which was one of the selections that Camarata recorded with the aggregate known as the Kingsway Symphony Orchestra in his early recording years. It is a nice piece, quite attractive in its own right, although the subliminal images I receive from it do not come from the title as so often occurs with me.

    "Caprice for Strings" for me does contain fleeting reminders of "Paris Interlude" but I thus far find it more difficult to follow due to frequently changing textures, often from measure to measure. Repeated listening will undoubtedly remedy some of the difficulty I am having on a first impression, and additionally, I will have to listen to more examples of the work of Edward White; nevertheless, I have to say that when listening for the first time to two of my favorites in the field of light music, at least of those of provenance from the UK; namely Felton Rapley and Peter Yorke whom I have frequently mentioned, I experienced no such difficulty on a first hearing, and I have to confess that I regard their work on a far more unconditional basis.

    I did not catch any guitar effect on this first hearing, and will have to listen a bit more carefully for it next time, although the sound of these recordings tend to be somewhat veiled, and I might not catch it even with careful listening. I have noted that in many of Robert Farnon's earlier recordings this less present sound is to be noted, which I feel can be actually advantageous in many cases.

    Bob mentions Ken Warner as the composer of "Scrub, Brothers, Scrub" which I know from one of my Melachrino Strings albums. I should mention that Mr. Warner was the collaborator in that ancient 1920's recording by Peter Yorke on which the latter appeared as a jazz pianist, mentioned in an article that appeared in the JIM magazine.

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Geoff Leonard was born in Bristol. He spent much of his working career in banking but became an independent record producer in the early nineties, specialising in the works of John Barry and British TV theme compilations.
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