Composition Detail

"Love & Learning" was Robert Still's first major composition

 

The Orchestral Works of Robert Still

Symphony No 1 (1954)
Symphony No 2 (1956)

Oedipus Overture (1956)

Overture, Ballad of the Bladebone Inn (1960)
Symphony No 3 (1960)
(© Alfred Lengnick & Co.)
Concerto for Strings (1964)
(© Alfred Lengnick & Co.)
Symphony No 4 (1969) (Sinfonia)
(© Alfred Lengnick & Co.)
Violin Concerto (1969)
(© Alfred Lengnick & Co.)
Piano Concerto (1970)
(© Alfred Lengnick & Co.)
Orchestral Fantasy, The Delphic Oracle (?)
Viola Concerto (unfinished 1971)
"Elizabethan Suite" - No MSS - A ballet written for the Les Ballet Trois Arts Company- arrangements of music by Lawes, Byrd and Farnaby

Robert Still’s orchestral writing reveals his true skills as a composer. In this medium he was able to convey great depth of feeling, often using dissonance to great effect.

The dates of his published works suggest that his rising recognition in the late ‘60s had encouraged him to further his orchestral skills, with three major works appearing in the years 1969-70 and a fourth started. Some quite remarkable works may have appeared, had he lived a further 10 years, giving him the recognition he so justly deserved. One movement of his unfinished Viola Concerto had been completed, with work on another well under way.

Although the more lyrical moments of his orchestral music (e.g. Concerto for Strings and the 2nd movement of the 3rd Symphony) may remind the listener of other composers, his works, as they progressed through the 60's, became highly individual. The diversity of his compositions demonstrate his desire to experiment with many forms, even if the format and orchestration remained conventional.

Robert Still was a master of counterpoint and harmony and he had studied with the top music teachers of his time. Composers who produce memorable melodies are the ones who tend to be remembered. It is difficult to understand, given Still’s ability to produce memorable melodies, why his music failed to make an impact. One possible reason may be that insufficient people heard his music to create the necessary momentum for demand. In the 3rd Symphony, considered by many as his greatest work, the 2nd movement is a beautiful and memorable largo. It is most likely, therefore, that Robert Still died at the time when he was starting to receive recognition but had not reached a sufficiently wide audience. He had already received a setback when his champion, Sir Eugene Goossens, had died in the early ‘60s soon after recording the 3rd Symphony. Sir William Glock's promotion of atonality and serialism at the BBC during the 60's meant that Robert Still was 'out of step' with the establishment.

Many of the melodies in his orchestral works followed the contemporary trends, being short, less explicit and less symmetrical. His harmony at times became bitonal and sometimes atonal. He made use of dissonance and chromaticism, with the use of unconventional chords and chord progression. Although his chromaticism never reached the level of Schoenberg or his rhythmical freedom that of Bartok, Still knew what effect he wanted and thus did not follow the trend towards lighter orchestral texture.

His orchestration of works was fairly traditional. In the 3rd Symphony, however, a tambourine is prominent and a harp was used on several occasions in other works.The 3rd also used a piano for a few bars, although the score instrumentation summary makes no mention of the instrument. The sidedrum was used prominently on many occasions, particularly as a threatening influence.

Still’s interest in psychoanalysis may have been detrimental to the reception and acceptance of his orchestral works. Critics tended to analyse his music in a highly programmatic way and he tended to work against himself in this repect. This is particularly true of the Lyrita and Saga record sleeve notes covering the 3rd and 4th Symphonies. Thus the public had a preconceived view of the music before it was heard.

If a comparison had to be made between Robert Still’s music and another contemporary’s; Walton’s name would feature, for he admired Walton who had a similar musical spirit.

Symphony No 1 in C

4 Movements: 1/ Tempo di marcia 2/ Allegro scioltezza 3/ Largamente 4/ Andamento risentito
The technique used in this work is the evolution of material from an introductory motto theme. He transforms this material rather than making a clear cut development and elaboration, using figures rather than melodies, and reverting to a truly major key in the finale.

Sir Nevill Cardus commented: “His flirtings with tonality are decorous, and he is happiest when at last he comes home to the key of C major with a warm hearted English melody grown from the seeds of the thematic stuff of the first movement.”

Arthur Jacobs was surprised at Still’s ability and said: “Who would have guessed that an ‘unknown’ composer of 46 would have produced such a notable First Symphony as Robert Still did at the Festival Hall last night? ... Mr. Still has never before had an orchestral piece publicly performed. Nor has the BBC Third Programme, which apparently leaves no younger composer unturned, discovered him. From today, the doors should open.”

Full score and parts are in the BMS Archives, Jerwood Library, Greenwich.

Symphony No 2

This work was never performed and the MS is held in the BMS Archives at the Jerwood Library, Grrenwich.

Symphony No 3 in C

This is considered by many to be his greatest work and earned him his Oxford doctorate in music. The work was championed by Sir Eugene Goossens and is the last work he conducted before his death. The 3rd Symphony was dedicated to Goossens.

3 Movements: 1/ Allegro ma non troppo (c.8m20s) 2/ Largo (c.11m20s) 3/ Moderato (c.8m20s)
The main theme is announced by a brass fanfare and this is developed throughout the first movement by different instruments using differing rhythms. A contrasting mood begins to provide a short interlude after which various ideas are continuously intertwined with thematic material which has already been introduced.

There is an English romantic feel to the largo in Cb major. The strings first theme is thickened as all the instruments are gradually added followed by a second theme introduced by the flutes and violins. This is extended and developed. Robert Still had Wilfred Owen’s poems in mind as he wrote this movement.The Largo ends by quietening down and with a muted trumpet solo.

The final movement of the 3rd Symphony is one of continually changing and developing themes. Its chromaticism is very much the outcome of romantic harmony, pushing it to its extremes. The movement opens with a brass figure, brass being used extensively throughout the movement. Several themes are introduced and developed throughout the movement. One of the themes is introduced by the woodwind and another by the 1st violins. The finale refers to earlier themes, gains rhythm and ends dramatically with a prominence of brass and side-drum.

Symphony No 4 (Sinfonia)

This is a single movement work (c.20m15s) and was inspired by a lecture given by Dr Charles Rycroft to the Imago Society. It concerns the history of a young man with delusions of persecution, who is treated, appears to get better, but finally the treatment fails and he is committed. It is, perhaps, better not to go too deeply into the story as this detracts and distracts from appreciating the music, as Hugo Cole from the Guardian newspaper found.

The work starts with an initial onslaught of brass and jagged string rhythms. The music becomes agitated and then becomes calmer, steadier and quieter. There is a return to the agitation with loud, isolated orchestral chords playing against two solo violins. The work ends in a sad and quieter vein.

Concerto for Strings

3 Movements of about equal length (c.14mins total) 1/Allegro 2/ Largo 3/ Poco piu mosso-Allegretto risoluto
The work is very English in its nature. It opens with a snappy introduction with leaps of major and minor ninths and sevenths. A syncopated passage, characteristic of the two outer movements, follows with lower and upper strings in contrary motion. The first subject enters, characterised by leaping 4ths and 7ths and a busy step-wise movement in all parts. It takes the shape of a pattern or figuration, to be developed later, rather than a memorable melody. From the latter a more definite theme grows, feeding on its own material and developing thematically and rhythmically. The movement ends with rhythmic repetition of the opening two bars.

The largo’s opening theme starts an unwinding and developing movement. Only once is the tranquil ostinato rhythm disturbed to allow a short, peaceful passage on a solo violin. A tutti quietly restores the original mood and the movement broadens to a climax and a quasi-conventional ending.

The final movement is introduced slowly with a theme derived from the previous movement. This link gently modifies it thematic content and prepares for the contrasting Allegro risoluto which is a terse summation of the previous music. Thematically and emotionally: rhythmic fragments, often syncopated; melodic symmetry and temporal contrasts achieve this, coming to a climax with a suggestion of the opening theme.

Overture, 'Ballad of the Bladebone Inn'

This is an early orchestral work. The ‘Bladebone’ is a huge animal bone encased in copper and hangs outside the public house in Bucklebury. The overture is based on the legend of a ferocious mammoth which lived in the Kennet valley and how the men of Thatcham and Bucklebury hunted and destroyed the beast.

Robert Still’s own programme notes explain the Ballad:

“The music attempts to express the emotions involved in this old tale. The people have a simple and satisfying way of life, but live under ‘threat’. They cannot entirely express themselves, so that, at first, the themes are either bitten off or interrupted. There is an atmosphere of brittle restlessness and anxiety from which they try to escape without success. Then the monster appears, anxiety gives way to terror, and the people can no longer hide their heads in the sand, but have to face the danger united. Exhortations from their leaders follow and they are strengthened to resist by thoughts of a good life for themselves and their families, without threat. At last they join the battle and slay their persecutor, whose death rattle is heard as a solo side-drum roll. After victory there is triumph, but not boasting, and the music flowers, without interruption from the monster, into a more confident expression.”

The battle section is a lengthy one and thickly orchestrated. The opening is Con ferocita and features side-drum and tympani. There are frequent uses of semiquaver or dotted semiquaver figuration. Brass interruptions can be heard intermittently. The battle becomes more energetic and the beast finally dies. There is a sudden pianissimo after the victory has been won.

Piano Concerto

This is a three movement work. The work, although conventional in its three movement layout, represents a peak reached in the development of the composer. It was his last major work to be completed and published. The Piano Concerto is currently only available in its orchestral parts (no conductors score) and has not received a public performance. Robert Still’s musician daughter, Catherine Hyde, describes the piano part as: “pretty atonal, like all his later works - too difficult for me to play”.

Violin Concerto

The Violin Concerto was only available as a conductor's score. However, it is now available in all its orchestral parts thanks to a premiere by the Ealing Symphony Orchestra,Efi Christodoulou, John Gibbons and BMS committee member Edward Clark.

Timothy Ball, composer, conductor and writer on music, describes Still's penultimate major work:

"The Violin Concerto is cast in the conventional three movements, and although Robert Still supplies neither tempo indications nor metronome markings for the second and third, it is clear that an equally traditional fast-slow-fast scheme is intended.

The first movement is characterised by considerable animation. Barely a bar is without semi-quavers or notes of even shorter duration, and the soloist has passages still more rapid, with much use of chromaticism. Reverting to the original sense of 'concerto', the violinist is very much in 'contest' with the orchestra, rather than engaging in dialogue. In fact, the soloist is barely silent throughout the movement. This is music of some ferocity, with dissonant writing and a wide tonal palette evident right from the start where there is an immediate intimation of bi-tonality. Following a taxing cadenza, the textures thin and the final bars find the violin alone with the percussion - an ominous side drum has the last word.

Contrast is afforded at the opening of the second movement, where a gentle ¾ metre might suggest a kind of waltz, but the triple time is often interrupted, and the lyricism tempered by frequent chromatics, rendering the tonic uncertain. The orchestration is less heavy throughout, thus the violin is enabled to sing more freely.

Something of the atmosphere of the first movement returns in the third, with bustle and energy, although the general mood is less strident than before. Whatever chromatic excursions, or harmonic ambiguities may have occurred in the concerto as a whole, it concludes resoundingly with two emphatic cadences in G major."

Viola Concerto (Unfinished)

The first movement is complete and work was started on a second movement. MS in the BMS Archives, Jerwood Library, Greenwich.

The Chamber / Ensemble Works of Robert Still

Clarinet Quintet (for clarinet and string quartet) (© Alfred Lengnick & Co.)
Quintet for Three Flutes, Violin and 'Cello
Piano Quintet in F major
String Quartet No.1 in A minor
String Quartet No.2 in D major
Sring Quartet No.3 - without key -not numbered by the composer (numbered for performance and recording)
String Quartet No.4 - without key - not numbered by the composer (numbered for performance and recording)
Oboe Quartet
Sonatina for Flute, Oboe, Bassoon and Harpsichord (or piano)
(no MS)
Sonatina for Flute, Oboe and Harpsichord
Sonatina for Oboe and Piano (or harpsichord) (1964)
Trio for Recorder, Horn and Piano (unfinished)
Trio for Clarinet in A, Violin and Piano
(© Alfred Lengnick & Co.)
Trio for Flute, 'Cello and Piano in G minor
Sonata for Violin and Piano
Sonata No1 for Viola and Piano
(exists only on a tape in poor condition - Eileen Granger, viola & Wilfred Parry, piano)
Sonata No2 for Viola and Piano
(© Chester Music Ltd.)
Sonata No3 for Viola and Piano
Poco Adagio in G Major for Oboe and Piano
'Cello Sonata in D minor


Viola Sonata No 2

This, together with the Quintet for 3 Flutes, Violin and ‘Cello, formed the first recording of Robert Still’s music in 1956. The cover notes by Dr Deryck Cooke are highly detailed and explain every aspect of the music. The following is abridged:

The work is in 5 movements. The opening, Tempo giusto, quietly presents two ideas together: the piano’s rhythmic figure in triads with its melodic shape of falling semitones, and the viola’s phrase of three rising notes. The viola takes over the first idea and a new idea is formed from an inversion of the original three rising notes. Tension generates which culminates in a forte restatement of the original idea, dying away with reference to the third idea, falling in augmented fourths. The viola takes this up as a second subject. The extended theme is in broken rhythm and passed between the viola and piano alternately. It becomes an accompanying figure on the piano, the viola bringing back the original idea fortissimo returning to the original meditative form. The third idea recurs for some length, culminating as before in a restatement of the first theme. The second subject is then converted into dancing triplets ending in a quiet reminiscence of the first subject.

Continuous contrapuntal development occurs in the second movement marked Lentamente. A rocking, descending figure on the piano and a four note phrase on the viola are developed They are combined in various ways and undergo several transformations, ending the movement with rocking thirds.

In the third movement, marked Un poco posato, the viola gives out the main theme, against parallel fourths on the piano. The theme is passed back and forth between the viola and the piano. A second theme arrives being presented by both instruments in antiphony, accompanied by by the first theme in the bass. The first theme returns briefly, in canon, this subsides as an accompaniment for the second theme, bringing the movement to a close

The fourth movement is marked ghiribizzoso (whimsically). This is just a brief flash of wit, setting the stage for the lively finale to follow.

The final movement is marked fuga libra . The fugue is in three part counterpoint, like the second and third movements. A subject of running semiquavers is given by the piano and the answer given by the viola. The piano provides the counter subject. The exposition is of four entries, the fourth having having the counter subject against its augmentation. This is followed by an episode based on fragments of both subject and counter-subject. Two more entries appear, the second being in inversion. A development of the subject takes place in both normal and inverted forms, dying away for the piano to build up a chord based on fourths. Taking this up as a new fugue subject, the viola opens with rising fourths and marked pomposo. There is an exposition, with three entries and this is accompanied by transformations of itself. The first subject returns on the left hand of the piano in inverted form. Against this is a new counter subject, derived from part of the second fugue. Given a new exposition, it has three entries which are all in inverted form. The fugue carries on to the end as a moto perpetuo, based on repetitions and variations of its opening subject.


Quintet for 3 Flutes, Violin and ‘Cello

The work consists of close weaving of interrelated thematic fragments which constantly change their shape.

The first of four movements is a free contrapuntal fantasia. This is based on a figure presented by the first and second flutes at the beginning. This is generative both melodically (the little melisma turning round one note) and harmonically as the main basis for the movement. The melody made by the third flute is almost immediately characterised by a falling fourth. A phrase introduced by the first flute, as a solo, is taken up in imitation by the violin, ‘cello, violin again and the third flute and later used again in inverted form. A scherzando theme is presented by the the first flute over two sustained chords. Its little melisma, original melodic germ, is inverted at double speed and this permeates most of the movement.

The second movement opens with rocking consecutive triads on the flutes, against a pedal note on the violin. This acts throughout the movement as a focal point with the music returning to it after each development. Brief phrases for ‘cello and flute occur between the first three statements and set forth the even rhythmic flow and melodic style used in later material. This is made up of three ideas and forms the basis for three separate sections built up by free imitations. The first is a falling theme on the flute, the second a rising and falling theme on the ‘cello and the third theme is wandering. This is introduced on the first flute in two part counterpoint with the second. Rocking triads bring the movement to a quiet close.

The third movement is a light scherzo, with cross-rhythm conflict between 6/8 and 3/4, although this finally merges into 4/4. The main material is made of fragments of theme passed from one instrument to the other. This is against a lilting 6/8 opening, flowing semiquavers set in motion by the first flute, a little march in the central section and a rising theme followed on the first flute, with dotted notes.

In the finale, an opening section sets three ideas. The first is a jerky figure of a diving fourth. This is tossed around from instrument to instrument. There is a tripping theme interspersed between its statements by one of the flutes and also a ‘cello theme of descending four semiquavers which is taken up immediately by the violin. A calmer, descending phrase is played by each flute in turn and soon afterwards a flowing melody comes from the second flute against the rhythm of the first idea. The rhythm of the tripping theme is the basis of a quasi-fugal section, falling of rising and falling fourths and fifths. The second idea is pulled in and the material has various transformations culminating in a fortissimo climax. This dies away, giving way to the final section. Marked con fuoco, there are running semiquavers on the violin from the third idea.

Together with this, falling fourths on the ‘cello from the the first idea, provide the basis of a fugato. The ‘cello introduces a third theme, coming from the second idea. All three ideas are woven together, being left solely with semiquavers in control at the end.

Sonatina (Trio Sonata) for Flute, Oboe and Harpsichord

The work has three movements (Largo pui arimato - Ariosa - Allegretto) and opens with a lament on the flute and oboe with a delayed entry on the harpsichord. David Ellis observes: clearly a mature work - brief and to the point. The composer's own edit, when compared with his MS flute/oboe part, shows that two passages of harpsichord music are missing - an 8-bar section and a 7-bar section.

Trio for Flute, Cello and Piano

An early-ish work in the composer's own careful hand, with ruled bar lines in some places!!! Towards the close the manuscript calligraphy is less-well written - bar lines are speedy freehand - which suggests an approaching deadline. Could it have been a submission for a degree? Styically it is closer to Brahms/Faure than to Still. - from observations by David Ellis

Quartet for Oboe, Viola and Cello

Professionally copied score, which suggests there is/was a set of parts in the same hand and a scheduled professional performance. It is closer to the composer's mature style but not yet as harmonically "advanced". - from observations by David Ellis.

Quintet for Clarinet (and String Quartet)

This work was commissioned for the newly formed Royal Philharmonic Octet. The work is in four movements and only utilises the clarinet equally with the other instruments. There are four movements: Allegro giusto - andante sostenuto - allegretto scherzando - tempo marcia quasi una gavotta-deciso.

The composer wrote:

"The work opens with E flats held an octave apart, round which legato and parallel counterpoints are devised.

Such anchor notes and the stimulus they provide are the chief features of this movement, like established law throwing up reactions, some dry, others staccato and humorous. Melodic patterns emerge and are developed and recapitulated. There is a short coda to finish the movement.

In the Andante, the anchor notes persist and are syncopated to give the music “flow” and to form the basis for exploring harmony and melody. It is as if a client were to tell a solicitor her story, which he converts into legal language, or in the musical exposition Tension is thus built up and released in the general flow of the music.

Anchor notes are minimal in the Allegretto. This is a “day off” followed by a “night out”. Little more need to be said about a “lark”, but the main theme but the main theme from Beethoven’s Rondo Allegro finale to his so-called Sonata Pathetique for piano, is quoted with no apologies and used as a Coda.

In the finale everyone wags his head at everyone else; much is chewed over, much argued. It could be a conference, it could be a court of law. However, just as it seems that all is Babel, somebody points out that either a decision must be reached, or a communique issued. But which is it ?"

Trio for Recorder, Horn and Piano (unfinished)

The score has been examined by John Turner using 'Sibelius'. The first short and vigorous movement appears complete, the second appears to be an unfinished draft of a slow movement.

Trio for Clarinet, Violin and Piano

 

 

Sonatina for Oboe and Harpsichord or Piano

A simple sonatina written for his daughter Katherine (Poppy) on the birthday that she was presented with a new oboe. David Ellis observes that it is entirely characteristic of the composer in his mature orchestral works.


 

Poco Adagio in G Major for Oboe and Piano

A water damaged photocopy of the score is in the BMS Archives at the Jerwood Library - needs reconstruction!

String Quartet No.1 in A minor (1948)

A three movement quartet with a pause of two bars in the first movement's two sections.It starts with a fugue prior to the break and is followed by a folk sounding piece. The second movement is like a scherzo with the last movement like a folk sounding passacaglia. Premiered in 1948 - about 16 minutes long.

String Quartet No.2 in D major

A three movement quartet with the influence of folk music in all three movements.It opens with a lively tune on the violin and closes with a tune related to a jig. About 18 minutes long.

String Quartets - no key

The first, with its World Premiere on 23rd June 2010 (now labelled number three), is a mature work, possibly from the mid 60s and at a time when he was studying with Hans Keller. It has four movements and is about 22 minutes long. The other quartet, now labelled number four, also has four movements and is about 19 minutes long.



The Keyboard Works of Robert Still


Many of Robert Still’s chamber compositions involving the piano were also suitable for the harpsichord. One of his friends, Michael Thomas, was an expert on old instruments and recorded his ‘Suite for Clavichord’. Robert Still’s musical upbringing was on the piano. Encouraged both at home and at Eton, he had become highly skilled and a technical master. His compositions were often born at the keyboard and skilfully transferred to paper.

Piano Sonata No.1 in B major (© Alfred Lengnick & Co.)
Piano Sonata No.2 in G major (© Alfred Lengnick & Co.)
Piano Sonata No.3 in C
Piano suite, "Love Thy Neighbour" or "Other People" - 10 character sketches
"Drole Aventure for two pianos" - arr Robert Still (incomplete)
(Piano II score only)
"Organ Voluntary for Joyful Occasions"
"Dance of a Church Mouse" or "March on a twelve tone row"
Clavichord Suite

Piano Sonata in G

All three sonatas begin with an allegro, ‘allegro con fermezza’ in the G major sonata. A theme is introduced from the opening and then used in a developed form throughout the movement. A chordal second theme is introduced immediately after the first, taking the form of a series of conventional chords. These are a semitone or tone apart in juxtaposition, having an octave bass line to produce a bitonal effect. This is developed throughout the movement between fresh introductions of the first theme. The first theme is a regular crotchet pattern of quaver, crotchet, quaver, crotchet..., given by use of a cross-accented bass line. This develops into crotchet quaver, crotchet quaver in octaves.

The second movement, ‘molto adagio e sensibilita’, uses a more conventional alternation and sounds typically English. It has a choral style opening in the enharmonic key of Eb major. This melody is accompanied by a series of unresolved chords which only hint at this key, not allowing the listener to settle. At some points there is a hint of bitonality. In the central development the choral style is extended and broadened, use of thirds being dropped to give way to eautiful contrapuntal part writing. The development section ends with an interesting figuration, never letting the ear settle on tonality, yet above this a beautiful melody sings out. The movement ends with a fuller rendering of the choral and a perfect cadence.

The final movement is marked ‘rondo risentito’ and begins with a violent dotted quaver figure on both hands followed by a run of semiquavers. These patterns alternate and develop throughout the movement, with hints of motifs from the first and second movements. The sonata ends with florid semi-quaver runs which become slightly more tonal towards the end and finally coming to a rest in the chord of G major.

Judged from the performance dates of these works, it is possible that the B major sonata is the second in the series. The G major is more tonal than the others, further reinforcing this conclusion. Although no key is stated for No 3, Ab is suggested.

The opening lines of the B major and Sonata No 3 are very similar and follow the off-beat pattern occurring in the first movement of the G major. In the B major the marking is Allegro con fermezza and in No 3 Allegro.

Allegro con fermezza ....................................B major

The slow movement of the B major has a strong melodic element like the G major.

The third movements are fast, in Sonata No 3 the speed changing five times. Each change gives a different theme. The movement starts with three motifs in contrary motion and is heard again at intervals. It is followed by an ascended passage in octaves. The movement ends with a fast and accelerated section marked mp, cresc., ff, cresc., molto e accel, ff and profuse pedal markings. The last movement of the B major employs a contrapuntal semiquaver figuration with hints of elements from the previous two movements.

Suite for Clavichord

This work is harmonically bi-tonal, but in a shape and form which is easy to understand. The first movement contains slow searching melodies, working up to a swinging cadence. The second movement opens with an air of mystery, developing into a broad sweep and arriving at a premature cadence. This carries on immediately ‘piu animato’ to a middle section of melodic tunes alternating with driving arpeggios. The music rises to a climax on a lingering high note before falling back into the final section, again mysterious and yearning

The start of the third movement has a pronounced tolling rhythm and the phrases are gradually built up into a dialogue. In the final section the texture gives a reminder of the first movement and this strong rhythm is maintained by the use of clashes of semitone between the two parts.


Piano Suite - 'Love thy Neighbour' or 'Other People' ( c.1960)

The Piano Suite is a collection of ten character studies some of which appear to have been added at a later date:

The Tycoon

Marked: “His restlessness and his absurdity”, the music shows this in busy semiquaver figures, used throughout, and meaningless harmony. The ‘restlessness’ is portrayed through a lack of musical resolution and false reactions. The interval of a sharpened 4th is used and violent changes of tonality are employed. e.g. A bass accompaniment moves up in semitones over a constant right hand note. Bi-tonal counterpoint is used, often in contrary motion and open 5ths are frequently employed. The study is built on a whole tone scale and, after each, line tends towards conventional tonality, using chromatic scales on several occasions.

The Civil Servant ( His earnest dedication to the administrative machine)

This follows a similar pattern to the previous study and also uses bi-tonal counterpoint. Opening with a legato phrase, this portrays supreme confidence in the subject’s own ability and the efficacy of the system within which the character works. There is an almost obsessive quality. The rhythmic patterns recurs, giving shape and continuity. A particular cadence occurs three times during the piece and this is later extended to draw the piece to a conclusion. The use of 4ths is made during the piece, moving up in in semitones in the left hand against octaves in the right.

The Typist (Her bustle, her dreaminess and her temper)

This is one of the more tonal pieces, its harmony giving an initial feeling of quiet self-assurance. This never quite comes to a rest. Underneath the chords is a triplet figure which is alluded, evening in the section relating to dreaminess. The last section , con fuoco portrays the typist’s temper, a side of her character which eventually takes over. Bi-tonal harmony is used, in places similar to that employed in The Tycoon.

The Stockbroker (His ever shifting medium, his watchfulness and his excitement)

The first of his two qualities are portrayed from the outset and its subsequent development. The use of a downward whole tone scale can be seen in places. The piece ends with the the character’s excitement, a contrapuntal element being evident.

The Don (Elderly, sleepy but belonging)

This is the shortest piece. Besides portraying the character, the piece is written in an ‘academic’ manner. The piece is based on a two-bar phrase, with the right hand motif being repeated on the left hand. This theme is followed by a contrasting figure, continuing with a short development of this repeated pattern.

The Dentist ( His anxious patient, his anaesthetic manner, his unaesthetic operation)

The first section uses busy semiquavers and accented octaves. The legato portrays the manner and thicker textured, busy writing, the operation. Contrary motion, bi-tonal counterpoint is used again.

The Old Widow ( Her sadness and her compassion)

Sadness is revealed in a slow opening melody. This is contrasted with the piece portraying the widow’s compassion, this being marked ‘intimato’ and ‘teneramente’.

Others are The Bookie, The Junkie and The Nurse, the latter appears to have been added at a later date.

Robert Still’s Opera and Compositions for Voice

Love and Learning (1939)

The Lords Prayer (after 1946) (© Eton College)

Oedipus (1956) Unfinished?

Elegie, for Baritone, Chorus and Small Orchestra ( originally ‘A Summer Night’(1958)) 1964 (© Alfred Lengnick & Co.)

Love and Learning (Light Opera)

Love and Learning was Robert Still's first major composition. It was written for the Windsor Operatic Society. Full licensing for its performance had only been granted a few days before its opening in early May 1939. This was at the Royal Albert Institute in Windsor. The Lord Chamberlain's Office had objected to the 'Kyrie Eleison', a chorus to be sung off-stage. After explaining that this was "addressed to the King in total darkness", was necessary for the plot, could not be changed in time for the first performance and that there would be heavy financial implications should the performance not go ahead: he was granted the licence. His letter to the Lord Chamberlain's Office demonstrates that he had excellent communication skills and it was in no way begging, showing willingness to change only a few words in the libretto. Only one sheet of music remains in existence.

Information about this work's three performances can be sourced from 'The Windsor, Slough and Eton Express' (Friday May 12th 1939). Performances were held on 11th, 12th and 13th May 1939. An augmented orchestra opened with Mozart's G minor symphony to set the correct mood. The operetta commences each of its three acts with an overture. The main character is Dora and the location a girls' school. The 1st Act sees Dora impatiently waiting examination results, with her fellow pupils trying to cheer her up with song and dance, until the headmistress brings this to an abrupt end. Three new music masters arrive, are lost and the girls show them the way through the school. Dora is left alone and learns that she has failed her exam.Another teacher, Miss Serena, comforts her and leads her off to bed (duet). The 2nd Act is a dream that Dora has that night. She dreams that she is part of a primitive community, with a king and queen, and has to undergo initiation rites (the examination failure hangs over her). The 3rd Act concerned a romantic relationship which builds between Dora and one of the music teachers, the opera ending in a climax, fading with soft music. The opera also contained a full length Kyrie Eleison. - From research by Clare Wright (June-July 2006)

The Lord’s Prayer

This is a conventional piece of choral writing for unaccompanied voices. It is vaguely modal in character and employs conventional chords and cadences. An unusual change of key occurs: C major, Bb major, Bb minor, A major, B major, Ab major and A minor. The note range is between Ab and C.

The composition was written for Geoffrey Leeds, a friend and former music teaching colleague at Eton.

Two other compositions for unaccompanied voices were written according to records, but cannot be found.



Oedipus (Opera) (Unfinished)

Oedipus was Robert Still’s 2nd opera, the 1st having been produced for the Windsor Operatic Society while he was still in his teaching post at Eton. The title of this 1st ‘light’ opera was ‘Love and Learning’, however the score is lost with the exception of one page.

Oedipus was a natural subject for a composer interested in psychoanalysis and it is not surprising to find that the libretto for this opera was provided by his friend Adrian Stokes, joint founder of the Imago Society (see: Links ‘Adrian Stokes Biography’). Started in 1956, the opera was not completed or is lost. The full libretto is in existance - see Links and References "Adrian Stokes".

BMS Archives only have a piano score of Act 1, sketches of Act 3, single page sketches of Acts 2 & 3 and part libretto of Act 2. A complete MS of the overture is in the BMS Archives - see Orchestral.

Elegie for Baritone, Chorus and Small Orchestra

Originally 'A Summer Night', based on Mathew Arnold's poem, it was first performed by the Newbury Choral Society in December 1958 under John Russell. It was later revised as 'Elegy' and the old fashion spelling 'Elegie' was applied at the time of publishing.

As its name suggests, the piece is both elegiac and rhapsodic. It is held together as an entity by returning and changing phrases, the end section being a reprise of the introduction. Still succeeded in creating music which brings out the poem’s sentiments and to use rhythm and melody that fit the words perfectly.


The first line, illustrated above, is sung to exactly the same rhythm as it would be spoken. Matthew Arnold’s poem depicts man’s yearning to resolve the conflict of freedom of mind (the wild uncharted sea) and slavery (prison of insignificance, barrenness and ultimate depression). The ultimate conclusion of the poem is that: liberty or redemption is found in the experience of the spiritual.

At the introduction, intermittent drum rolls are made between a series of chords. Accompaniment is contrapuntal, using 4 or 6 quaver patterns. This enters as an echo following the words: “..echo of my feet”
An important theme starts at bar 27, played on the oboe. Another, also played on the oboe, occurs at bar 55. Both these recur or are extended and developed.

Illustration from bar 27 on the piano score


At bar 250 it opens out to a reprise of the opening bars. The theme returns, with variations, to end the work. With it comes a six note figure which has been played intermittently throughout the piece.

Some important effects are used throughout the composition. Constant quaver A in the accompaniment and C and E in the bass line portray the monotony of prison life. For the storm Still uses tremolo accompaniment and runs, both of which are frequently used in octaves or at an octave lower. The voices are also in octaves or thirds for part of the time.

The choir mainly follow a chordal pattern, at times contrapuntal or almost fugal. In several passages a motif is passed between the voices and the orchestra. Some parts are highly reminiscent of Delius, but overall it is a highly individualistic work.


Songs by Robert Still


Robert Still wrote a number of songs that were all based on English poetry. They cannot be assembled in chronological order as he did not date his scores and only two are available from the publishers, ‘Upon Julia’s Clothes’ and ‘Beauty Bathing’. Over 20 songs in total were written.

Lorraine Bell studied Robert Still for a BEd dissertation in 1981. In this she divided the songs into three groups:

1/ Those songs which are more traditional, having verses and are mainly tonal:

Beauty Bathing (poem by Anthony Munday) Baritone (© Alfred Lengnick & Co.)
Upon Julia’s Clothes (To Julia) (Herrick) Baritone (© Alfred Lengnick & Co.)
Sister Awake (Anon 1604) Soprano
When I am Dead , My Dearest (Christina Rossetti) Soprano
Ode to a Skylark (Shelley) Soprano

These are all most likely to have been composed before World War 2.

2/ A song which has verses, although moving further away from traditional tonality:

August (John Masefield) Baritone

This song was composed before World War 2.

3/ Songs which are more rhapsodic, with a greater emphasis placed on translating the words to music:

Sonnet (Keats) Baritone
The Kingfisher (W H Davies) Soprano
Sunset on the Morea (Byron) Baritone
Awaiting Execution (C. Tichborne) Baritone
The Siren’s Song (William Browne) Soprano

These were all composed after World War 2.

Other Songs not mentioned in the analysis are:
A Song of Pain and Beauty (Ivor Gurney) Soprano, Amo Amas Amat (John O’Keefe)
The Sea Hath Many Thousand Sands (Anon)Ten/Bar, Shall I Wasting in Despair Die(G.Wither),
A Lament (Shelley), I Fear Thy Kisses, Gentle Maiden (Shelley), The Countryside (not known) & Lyric (Allan Cunningham)


The compositions in group 1 are very English in character both in terms of word and music. In ‘Beauty Bathing’ the simple melody line becomes more contrapuntal in places, often with the accompaniment being passed between the hands and a simple 4-note figure predominating. The use of syncopation in places enhances the song’s lively, cheerful feeling. In ‘Upon Julia’s Clothes’ it is the accompaniment which carries the song along. These two songs were used on the Guildhall Examination Syllabus for many years and are the only two available from the publishers. ‘Sister Awake’ has a lively and witty introduction. It has three verses and the first and last are identical music, the middle verse being slower, in a more modal character, with more chordal texture. The two verses of 'When I am Dead, My Dearest' start similarly but end differently. The music has a pentatonic feel. It is in G and the melody is made up of GABDE. Only twice is C sounded, at the end of each first section of verse. The melody line is in an almost canonic form.

‘Ode to a Skylark’ has a simple melody which is reminiscent of late romantic music such as Schumann and Brahms. The accompaniment consists of an arpegiated treble figure, cross accented with bass chords. The melody line of the accompaniment comes out as a separate melody against the voice melody and has an almost bird-like soaring effect.

‘August’ is a beautiful and moving song which is very English in character. The opening has a minimum of accompaniment but later it becomes richer and more noble. It is another song in common time, utilising the four-note figure. The first line of the accompaniment portrays something of the opening melody.

‘Sonnet’ is more rhapsodic, with much more emphasis put on the words and melody line, although the accompaniment is not unimportant. It has a one note introduction and begins in Eb wandering into many other keys yet never quite changing key until the new key signature states it. The key changes are: Eb, F and back to Eb, with the work ending in C. The work is in common time with bars of unequal length ..3, 4½ , 4, or 2 beats. These fall into a pattern of mostly 3 and 4 beat bars, alternating with a 4½ beat bar (for 1 bar) and once a 2 beat bar (for 1 bar). In the first section the melody is mostly of quaver and semiquaver pattern above a quaver accompaniment, the latter often in 6ths or octaves. This becomes more dominant and accidentals give a sense of atonality. In the second section the bass moves more quickly than in the first section but often retains the same pattern.

‘The Kingfisher’ is also rhapsodic and starts with a one note introduction. It has three verses, with the first and last verse being contemplative and the middle verse regal and triumphant. Although the first and last verse are not identical they do have common elements The melody line in bar 2 of the first verse is similar to that in bar 1 of the third verse and likewise bars 6-8 in the first verse and 5-7 in the last verse are similar.

‘Sunset on the Morea’ is the longest song written by Robert Still and its three sections (A B A) are steeped in atmosphere. It begins with ‘eerie’ chords above a pedal note of D which continues 14 bars and returns intermittently. The accompaniment is predominantly chordal. The central section is a faster piu mosso in a similar way to ‘The Kingfisher’. There are sections of descending chordal accompaniment and some syncopated or off-beat phase, with a gradual fading away at the end as the sun sets.

In ‘Awaiting Execution’ the atmosphere is set with a morbid semiquaver figure set an octave below. This is a more atonal work which is not written in a particular key and is often bitonal. The atonal melody moves quickly to portray the prisoner’s anguish, his racing mind which contemplates the worth of life. A dotted rhythm often occurs and the melody ascends at one point, only to come to a halt of realisation.

‘The Siren’s Song’, although very different to Robert Still’s other songs, is of a similar speed to ‘Awaiting Execution’. There are two verses with similar endings. The song opens with rapid semiquavers in the accompaniment which recur throughout the the song. The first two lines are fast , loud and have a very active accompaniment. These set the mood . The key of Eb seems hinted at but the contradictory bass line gives a bitonal effect. Most of the first verse is slower, more descriptive and broader. The second verse returns to the faster semiquaver pattern which develops into runs, sometimes chromatic, up and down the keyboard. This verse has a slow section but is shorter than the first, ending in a similar way to how it began.

‘A Song of Pain and Beauty’ has been described as having the warmth of Schumann and ‘The Sea Hath Many Thousands Sands’ as having some astringent Hindemith.

'I Fear Thy Kisses, Gentle Maiden' (Shelley) - No MS in the BMS Archives, Jerwood Library, Greenwich.