Thursday, 16 July 2009

Edwin Belmont (1861-1909) : An underrated man

Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Wagner, Belmont.

Spot the odd one out?

Naturally many people will say Belmont on account of it being a type of 1980s Vauxhall whereas the others are 19th century classical composers. However, Englishman Edwin Belmont was also a 19th century composer. On the 100th anniversary of his death in July 1909, British Foghorn takes a look at some of the works hidden away in this forgotten corner of musical history.

Edwin Belmont (born in Tewkesbury in 1861) produced his first notable work in 1884: the 1882 Overture. This is a musical depiction of an afternoon Belmont spent lazing around in the garden. To reflect this, the music Belmont composed starts peacefully but it is not long before it slowly seems to drift away from the subject matter. By the time of the ferocious finale (which involves several canon shots being fired, the simultaneous sounding of 12 gongs and the deployment of a timpani full of dynamite) the piece seems to have nothing to do with Belmont’s pleasant afternoon. The opening performance at Birmingham City Hall was disastrous, largely because the canons had been mistakenly loaded with actual cannonballs. Shots started to blast through the exterior walls of the hall and rain down on passers-by causing many to believe that the French had covertly started a war by disguising themselves as an orchestra. This view was reinforced when three timpani idly rolled out of the City Hall into the adjoining square and exploded, leading to the so-called “Symphonic Wars” (1883-1885).

Many of Belmont’s works were musical depictions of actual events, another notable example of which is his 1893 ballet Preston North End 2 Aston Villa 1, inspired by the popularity of a match in the still relatively youthful Football League. The Manchester Guardian described the football match inspiring the ballet as “a gloriously orchestrated performance of 22 players, each moving in synchronicity with each other as though their tackles, passes and dribbles had been scripted by a divine being”. This should have made the match an ideal event to transfer to the stage but, sadly, the same newspaper described the opening performance of Belmont’s ballet as a “violent mudbath”. After three ballerinas broke their legs in dangerous tackles, the ballet was never performed again. The performance was not entirely without merit though – by playing the oboe section deeper in defence, rather than as traditional centre halves in the middle of the pitch, Belmont had hit upon a tactic that Herbert Chapman would use to lead Huddersfield Town to three successive league titles in the 1920s.

In 1903, inspired by hearing a performance of Mendelssohn’s Song Without Words Op. 62 at the Gloucester Assembly Rooms, Belmont composed his Piano Sonata No. 14 (Without Notes), perhaps his most famous work. This consisted of a 20-minute sonata split into three movements, each consisting of total silence.
Early performances of the sonata were understandably met with rabid hostility by audiences, but it can be argued that Belmont was a man substantially ahead of his time. John Cage’s famous piece 4’33” from 1952 (which requires a perfomer to sit at his instrument without playing a note for four minutes and thirty-three seconds) is said to have appropriated much of Belmont’s work. The extent of the similarly led to a notable court case, where Cage was sued by the owners of the Belmont Estate claiming that the 3rd minute of silence in Cage’s piece was a direct theft of the 2nd minute of silence in the final movement of Belmont’s sonata. The court action to establish the legal ownership of silence was further complicated by a counter-claim from the owners of the British Library Reading Room who felt that their claim on owning the copyright on silence carried more weight than either Belmont or Cage.
The case dragged on for two months until it was established that no-one could claim copyright on an absence of noise. This came as a relief to the people of North Carolina, who for the previous few months had been constantly shouting for fear they would have to pay royalties to Cage if they fell silent.

The failure of the piano sonata deeply affected Belmont and he returned to his native Gloucestershire. A broken man, he lived the remainder of his life in solitude until killed in a freak weather balloon accident in 1909.

The Belmont story does not end there however, as in 1919 the score of one of his final pieces of work was discovered. The untitled piece of work came to be known as the Unfinished Symphony and crowds of people attended its debut performance in Bath in November 1919.
The recital began with the whole orchestra playing a short A minor chord and then promptly leaving the stage. Sadly, it turned out that the symphony was substantially more unfinished than people had realised.

Edwin Belmont’s ‘Piano Sonata Without Notes’ is available as a limited edition release on British Foghorn Records for £17.99 and on all blank CDs for substantially cheaper.

1 comment:

  1. Your description of the havoc caused during the performance of Belmont's "1882 Overture", explains why the centre of Birmingham had to be extensively redeveloped during the 1960s.

    Until now, I had been under the mistaken impression that the Bullring Centre was built on the ruins created during World War 2, having never heard of the Symphonic Wars.

    Thank you, British Foghorn, for plugging this unexpected hole in my education!!