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Cyril Bradley Rootham (1875–1938)
Director of Music and organist at St John’s College, Cambridge, from 1901 until his death, Cyril Rootham was a composer who found success in his lifetime, and who now merits reappraisal as part of the ongoing twenty-first century review of our twentieth-century English heritage.
An important stage in this process would be the performance and premiere recording of what is undoubtedly Rootham’s most significant achievement, the Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity of 1928. In the high rhetoric and majestic periods of Milton’s verse he found a perfect vehicle to convey his command not only of the choral–orchestral medium on the largest scale, but also of the delicacy and atmosphere for which he was equally gifted. The range of its ambition is consistent with major scores of the period by other English romantics such as Bantock, Bax, Delius and Holbrooke, and his treatment of ‘It was the winter wild’ invites detailed comparison with others by J. B. McEwen in his Hymn on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, and in Hodie by Vaughan Williams – one of the many names championed by Rootham in his role as conductor of the Cambridge University Musical Society.
Also waiting to be explored are a number of shorter choral pieces such as Brown Earth of 1923, winner like the Ode of a prestigious Carnegie award. Meanwhile, however, the most immediate route to an appreciation of Rootham’s work is through encounters with his music for organ and for voice. Of the former, the Elegiac Rhapsody and ‘Epinikion’ (Song of Victory) are complementary opposites, both reflecting his skill as a performer, the one being sombrely chromatic, the other a virtuosic paean concluding with a pedal cadenza.
The son of a noted vocal coach who taught Eva Turner and Clara Butt, Rootham himself received Stanford’s praise for his word-setting, even while still a student. His published songs encompass texts by Thomas Love Peacock, Sir Thomas Wyatt, James Hogg, Traditional and Anon, as well as by Siegfried Sassoon. Poet and composer became acquainted at Cambridge in 1919 following Sassoon’s treatment for wartime trauma by the remarkable psychologist William H. R. Rivers. The resulting collection displays the characteristics of Rootham’s mature manner and projects the energetic and essentially positive message of his art in terms of a language easily accessible to amateur singers and pianists.
Several recordings of his shorter works can be found on CDs of mixed choral or instrumental programmes. There is also a Lyrita reissue of the First Symphony with the LPO conducted by Vernon Handley, and an anthology of choral and orchestral repertoire conducted by Richard Hickox, first released in 1987 and currently available on EMI Classics.