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Sir Granville Bantock's "Fifine at the Fair"

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The English composer, Sir Granville Bantock, completed what he referred to as his "orchestral drama", Fifine at the Fair, in 1911. The work was inspired by the lengthy and fairly difficult poem of the same title published originally in 1872 by Robert Browning. In a 1951, Gramophone Magazine review. of a then-new recording of Bantock's piece, Lionel Salter had this to say:

Fifine is an excellent example of this neglected composer at his best, showing the tremendous vitality of his mind, his large-scale thinking and his zestful instinct for orchestral colour. . . . Both in style and technique it might be Richard Strauss; and, like much of Strauss, the construction and orchestral writing is superior to the actual subject-matter though it avoids the worst mawkish commonplaces which mar all but the best of the German master.

His fairly transparent "slap" at Richard Strauss aside, I concur with Mr. Salter's assessment of Bantock and this work in particular.

Fifine at the Fair is written in one extended movement with distinct "episodes" consistent with Browning. Salter again:

The prologue, beginning with a slowly-built-up D major chord, and utilising divided strings in 21 parts, describes the poet swimming in the Ocean of Life with a butterfly hovering above his head: his vague yearning changes to higher aspirations (a theme associated with his " serious " love Elvire, characterised by a solo viola). The scene changes abruptly . . . to the glitter and bustle of the fair (note, amid the blare and turmoil, a travesty of the Carnival of Venice) with bells, a big drum being whacked outside some sideshow, and an itinerant fiddler who is joined by a penny whistle. The poet is somewhat deterred by the blatancy and garishness of the fun, when Fifine the butterfly enters (. . . she is represented by the solo clarinet) and exercises all her fascination in a seductive dance: she flirts outrageously with him (a long clarinet cadenza), and he is torn between her charms and the purer and nobler character of Elvire. As any moviegoer could foretell, it is Fifine whom he follows; but disillusion is not far behind, and in the final section . . . we find the poet returning to his true love, while the memory of Fifine and the fair fade for ever from his mind.


Sir Granville Bantock: Fifine at the Fair (1911)

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