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Notes on Westminster Reels

This CD contains the music specially written by Edward Lee (who was at the time a Lecturer Guide) for various key occasions in the academic year of the EFL Section of the University of Westminster.  Each term there was a “mini-festival”  to celebrate the season, and it seemed a good idea to begin the programme with a Festival Overture. 

The title track Westminster Reels was written to help lighten the wait which students had before their Induction, on arriving at the University.

The following was included at the start of the booklet which went with the original CD

Introduction by Eileen McConnell Director of the Cultural Programme

There is a long tradition of music which was written as an opening to
festivals - among the most famous are Brahms' Academic Festival Overture I and Vaughan Williams' The Wasps. Here on the University of Westminster Cultural Programme we do not have composers of that calibre, but we do have a professional musician, and, as the old saying goes, ‘A cat may look at a king!' So for the Summer Festival, 2003, Edward Lee wrote a special piece. This was followed by music for the Christmas Festival, in December 2003, for the Easter Festival in April 2004, and for the Induction of April 2004.

I am happy to see that the music has now been brought together on this CD. I hope that it will bring back happy memories of your time at Westminster. I also hope that you will find, as I have, that this is beautiful and stimulating music in its own right .

Eileen McConnell

 

Edward Lee writes:

WESTMINSTER REELS (Music composed to open the Inductions of the EFL Section of the University of Westminster) listen to the track

At the Inductions there is always a period while waiting for late arrivals from the testing procedure. Westminster Reels was written to entertain new students during that wait.

Basically it is a dance piece in the style of a Scottish Reel. This acknowledges the Scots ancestry of Eileen McConnell. It is meant to suggest the atmosphere during one of the Cultural Programme walks.
The piece begins with the first reel, Mistress McConnell's Romp. which is followed by the entry of Senior Guide, Reg Parks. As he is a traditional Englishman, this is signalled by Rule Britannia. The music then moves into his reel, The Barley Brew of Bromley. This is played on the piccolo, a small lively instrument, which is very appropriate to the man for a variety of reasons.

Next follows the third reel, for guide Edward Lee. This is Dominie Edward's Dram. 'Dominie' was the traditional name for a schoolteacher in Scotland, and a dram is a short of whisky, of which Edward is very fond. The three reels then combine as our heroes dance together.
 
Next the students set off on a walk; a steady pace is set (on the tuba) by Reg, which keeps going most of the time. The students chatter to each other. They come from different parts of the world, and at first everything seems fragmented or even chaotic, but gradually they blend together as a group until we hear the combination of their voices into Tower of Babel(the Students' Reel).

This is followed by the Chinese students. Being as ever very appreciative and forthcoming, they offer us a specially devised Shanghai Strathspey. (This is not real Chinese music, of the impressive sort which various students have introduced me to)but a comic sketch by an uninformed Englishman, which I hope conveys the happy times we have spent together. As it ends, the Spanish students, always romantic, break out into a lyrical phrase or too, and this sets off the Latin American students. They are typically very lively and cheerful in class, and so it is no surprise that they turn they walk into a party, dancing along the street in time with the steady tread of 'Mr Reg'.

By this time the listener's head may be reeling, which is the other reason for the choice of title. As the party comes toward the end of the walk, the Westminster staff join in again and we hear the various reels once more. They all dance together in a joyful polyphony.
The walk ends and, since we are in Westminster, we hear the chimes of Big Ben. At this point we realise why we have at various points heard the chime of bells. The whole piece is in fact based on the chimes of Big Ben (known as the Westminster Quarters). In fact in technical terms the piece is a set of variations on an ostinato (a repeated phrase) in the high register. An ostinato is normally played throughout a piece, but that would have been boring in this case (and the EFL section teachers are never boring!), so it is only implied for most of the time.

Although Big Ben is the name commonly applied to the clock and clock tower of the Palace of Westminster, strictly speaking it is the name of the biggest bell, which sounds the hour. It is this chime, which ends the piece, and announces the beginning of the Induction.

About the chimes: The tune is known as the Westminster Quarters. It is now the most popular melody used by a chiming clock. The chime of Big Ben is a set of variations by William Crotch (1775-1847) on the fifth and sixth measures of "I know that my redeemer liveth" by Georg Friedrich Handel, who included it in his work, The Messiah.  According to tradition, the tune has words: "0 Lord our God/Be thou our guide/That by thy help/No foot may slide."

The Clock Tower of the Palace of Westminster in London is located at the northern end of the building. It is often colloquially referred to as "Big Ben", after the 13-ton bell that is its best-known feature.

THE 3 FESTIVAL OVERTURES

CHRISTMAS  ("Christmas Eve") listen to the track

This piece tries to capture the spirit of what for many English people is the most important holiday and festival of the year. It unashamedly looks back to tradition, the images of which surround us at this season.

The piece begins with a sense of expectation, and a touch of mystery. It is Christmas Eve, the time when young children excitedly look forward to the visit of Father Christmas. The house is decorated and the tinsel and tree decorations glitter in the light, while outside the night is cold and starry.

The music gives hints of the theme to come. Modal elements and the accordion suggest traditional English folk music.

The excitement builds, then midnight comes, a bell sounds, there is a moment of stillness and the sleigh bells of Santa Claus are heard in the distance.

Christmas Day comes and a warm theme in the traditional style is heard, with the accordion and tuba suggesting the old church bands and carol singers doing their rounds. The theme is repeated by a string orchestra, with a descant (the traditional Gloria) which reminds us of the church choirs and Festivals of Nine Lessons and Carols which are so popular at this time of year.

EASTER ("Festa Pasquale") listen to the track

The subtitle is Italian to reflect the fact that I have used Italian musical styles as an inspiration. The Crucifixion was a Mediterranean event, and it has been said that the dark side of the ravishing beauty of the region is a long history of violence caused by the release of the most basic and powerful emotions. Thus in the piece you will hear the roar of the crowd calling for blood and the slow beat of the drum in an execution procession.

Italy is also the home of Roman Catholicism, and the expression of
Christianity there has typically been highly charged and intoxicating to the emotions. Richly decorated churches are filled with music strongly influenced by the Italian love for emotional melody. The most famous manifestation of this has been the Neapolitan song, whose style I have used to express the grief of the women (especially his mother, the Virgin Mary) who witness the execution and later discover the empty tomb.

The Neapolitan song typically has two sections, a sad section in the minor key, which opens out into a powerful major theme. I have used this fact to create the processional music. This is meant to recall the triumphant entry of Christ into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, as well as the spirit of triumph felt by Christians on Easter Day. But the ending reminds us that in all this exaltation, some still grieve ...

There is a further element which I include because I am not a Christian, writing for the Church, but an atheist, who sees the grief of this event more than the joy, and who sees a still vital lesson for us on the mutability of mass emotions - the cheering all too rapidly can turn to bloodlust. I also remember the occasions, well documented in Medieval Church records, when people did neither of these things, but largely unaware of and unconcerned with events on the great stage of the world, took the opportunity to let themselves go in a Saturnalia of wine, women and song.
So a folk band, less skilled than enthusiastic, and in the case of the trumpeter, drunkenly oblivious to being in the wrong key, weaves its way around the scene, past mourners. briefly halting the procession and disappearing into the distance for more wine and music. It marches to the beat of the deep bass drum we heard before.

The above is meant to be a piece of composed music with themes, but I enjoyed writing the main theme so much that I hve given it on a separate track. 

MIDSUMMER ("Summer Festival") listen to the track

This was the first piece written for the Cultural Programme Mini-festivals.

It sets out to evoke some of the uniquely English pleasures which can be enjoyed at this point in the year (providing at least that the weather is kind!).

It uses a string orchestra, modal elements and plenty of independent part writing. It certainly pays homage to the music of Vaughan Williams, whose music built on and celebrated our Elizabethan period, a time of great national pride. Like his music, this piece draws on traditional English folk elements. This seemed appropriate since an important motivation for overseas visitors is to experience the English (and British) heritage.