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Bantock’s Sapphic Poem

Elgar’s Successor

Drawing of Granville Bantock

Granville Bantock. By an unknown artist – NYPL Digital Gallery, Public Domain.

Sir Granville Ransome Bantock (7 August 1868 – 16 October 1946), composer, conductor, and music professor, was one of the most popular composers of his time. Today, however, he is largely forgotten. His circle of friends included several famous composers, such as Sir Edward Elgar (2 June 1857 – 23 February 1934), Joseph Holbrooke (5 July 1878 – 5 August 1958), Jean Sibelius (8 December 1865 – 20 September 1957), and Frederick Delius (29 January 1862 – 10 June 1934).

During his lifetime, Bantock’s fame rivaled Elgar’s. In fact, Bantock became Elgar’s immediate successor to the Chair of Music at the University of Birmingham in 1900. Surprisingly, Bantock was actually considered by his students and colleagues to be more successful than Elgar in the post.

Elgar and Bantock - BBC Radio 3 Show - Twenty Minutes Photo as link to this show

Click the image to listen to a discussion of Elgar and Bantock at the University of Birmingham.

Esteemed by His Contemporaries

Granville Bantock

Granville Bantock. Photograph by Lafayette, Dublin. Modern Musicians by J. Cuthbert Hadden (First published by T.N. Foulis in 1913). September 1918 Foulis reprint. Public Domain.

In his book, Some Thoughts on Beethoven’s Choral Symphony with Writings on Other Musical Subjects, Ralph Vaughan Williams (12 October 1872 – 26 August 1958) wrote about his experience with Bantock. He noted Elgar’s suggestion to study with Bantock; however, he recalled:

“I did not adopt his suggestion which was perhaps a mistake, as what Bantock did not know about the orchestra is not worth knowing.”

Given Bantock’s broad support of his contemporaries, it is notable (though perhaps unsurprising) that he became the dedicatee of Elgar’s Second Pomp and Circumstance March and Sibelius’s Third Symphony.

Bantock’s Cello Works

Vaughan Williams’ awe of Bantock’s outstanding orchestral knowledge notwithstanding, it is clear from his own compositions that Bantock particularly favored certain instruments over others. There was no solo instrument that Bantock preferred over the cello. He wrote at least ten works for cello, including:

“Sapphic Poem”

One can take a unique look into Bantock’s brilliant mind through an examination of his “Sapphic Poem,” a 15-minute piece for cello and piano (or orchestra). Bantock composed it in 1906 in Broad Meadow Kings Norton for cellist Willy Lehmann.

Novello published it for cello and piano in 1908 and cello and orchestra in 1909.

Recordings and Performances

There are only two known recordings of the work: one by Gillian Thoday (1978) and the other by Julian Lloyd Webber (1999). Apart from these two recordings, the work has likely been performed publicly only between ten and twenty times since its premiere in 1906.

Structure and Musical Language

“The Sapphic Poem” is composed in one continuous movement. In the autograph score, Bantock includes a fragment in Greek with an English translation underneath, quoted from Henry Thornton Wharton’s Sappho: Memoir, Text, Selected Renderings, and a Literal Translation.

Bantock’s tonal language in the “Sapphic Poem” is distinctly British. However, one can also hear Wagnerian and Russian influences. The main key of the piece is b minor. The middle section is in f# minor, and the return of the main theme is in E Major.

The piece ends peacefully in B Major. While the cello writing is lyrical throughout, one of the more challenging cadenzas requires the cellist to play nineteen notes on an up-bow staccato.

Sheet Music

I have recently prepared an urtext edition of “The Sapphic Poem.” Get it here.

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