THE GRESSENHALL SUITE
Gressenhall is near East Dereham, in the centre of Norfolk. It is perhaps best known today as the centre of Norfolk’s rural life museum at Gressenhall workhouse. As well as housing the museum the old workhouse also holds the offices of the Norfolk Historic Environment Service, formerly known as landscape archaeology. It is the definitive database of the county’s historic buildings. As you can see it is now an important place for the study of Norfolk history. In the First World War when the Gressenhall Suite was published it was still the workhouse for the district.
Why this piece of music has the name Gressenhall Suite I do not know, but I can tell you few other things about it. Its full title is A Suite for Strings and Piano. It has four movements: Preamble, A Norfolk Folk Tune, Slow Air and Jig and Finale. ‘This Suite was specially composed for the Worshipful Company of Musicians at the instance of one of the Liverymen, Mr W. W. Cobbett.’ The Suite was composed by Francis Cunningham Woods (1862-1929) in 1915. The parts are for piano, 2 violins, viola, violoncello and double bass.
Walter Willson Cobbett (1847 -1937) was a businessman and amateur violinist who did much to encourage the writing of British chamber music. His two volume Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music (1929) is still regarded as the authoritative work on the subject. He commissioned many works from up and coming British composers. A competition inaugurated in 1905 made the the Phantasy a prominent part of chamber music in this country, fashioned after the 17th century fantasia. Aged nineteen, the young Benjamin Britten wrote the Phantasy Quartet for Oboe and Strings for the Cobbett Competition of 1932 which it won.
The timing of the commissioning of the Gressenhall Suite was unfortunate. In normal circumstances it was an obvious candidate for performance in the Norfolk and Norwich Triennial Festival, but with the First World War intervening it did not make a great splash on the musical scene. I can trace no record of its first performance, and although it was printed and published by Hawkes it has largely passed us by. It was apparently recorded in one of the series of records A Garland of British Light Music, but this itself is hard to come by.
Neither Woods nor Cobbett had a great connection with Norfolk, although there was an East Anglian link in that the composer’s father Alfred Woods came from Lowestoft. Cobbett lived and died in London and Woods also was born in London’s St Pancras. Woods was organist at Brasenose College, Oxford before moving on to Exeter College in the same university. By the age of 40 he was the head of music at Highgate School. He obviously spent some time collecting Norfolk folk songs which formed a rich vein of musical research in the early years of the 20th century. E. J. Moeran’s Rhapsody No. 2 (1924) was based on a Norfolk folk song; although Moeran was of Irish extraction his father was clergyman in Norfolk and he spent his youth in the county. Ralph Vaughan Williams also wrote a Norfolk Rhapsody. Percy Grainger meanwhile during 1905 – 1908 produced a string of transcriptions of folk songs from the adjacent county of Lincolnshire. Quite why the east of England should be such fertile ground for the discovery of folk song I cannot tell.
Norfolk also produced a notable type of instrumental folk music played on the hammered dulcimer. My next door neighbour at Poringland, Mrs Matthews, told me that her husband (a builder by trade who died in the early 1960s) had been a competent player of the hammered dulcimer. Although I remember the man unfortunately I never heard him play.
In other parts of the Britain different instruments came to the fore. Violin, or more properly fiddle music was popular in Scotland, particularly in the far north. The accordion largely took its place in the nineteenth century as these industrially manufactured instruments became available. This is not a hard and fast rule, and accordions for example could be found everywhere. The bagpipes are of course the national instrument of Scotland, but they are too loud for for the intimate settings of most folk music, being used outdoors. The Northumbrian pipes are a gentler sounding type of bagpipes, blown by bellows. They are found only in the north east. Penny whistles had a revival as folk instruments when they became a product of tin-plate makers. The guitar which is now a staple part of the folk band did not feature in British folk music before the 1960s. In Spain it has a long history as the folk instrument in flamenco dance, and it was taken to the New World by Spanish settlers. It became popular in America and came to this country as the instrument used in transatlantic Pop and folk music. But ultimately folk songs for the unaccompanied voice are folk music in its purest form.
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