Dedicated to Schroeder: Ashton's Phantasiestucke, Op. 12
Updated: May 25, 2022
London-based duo partners Evva Mizerska and Emma Abbate made a wonderful recording a few years back of cello music by the English Romantic composer, Algernon Ashton (1859-1937). Their Toccata Classics release includes four Ashton cello works, all published during the 1880s: two cello sonatas, an Arioso, and a set of three Phantasiestucke, Op. 12. Described on the Toccata Classics website as “one of the best-kept secrets in British music,” Ashton is noted for the fluency and quality of his melodious inspiration, often with a lightness of character that belies his Germanic training. Of the cello works, the Phantasiestucke is of special interest: Ashton dedicated this opus to Alwin Schroeder, who may have premiered it before it was published in 1883, and played it on an All-Ashton concert in October 1884 (per Leipziger Musikalisches Wochenblatt 1884, p. 524).
When he was just five, Ashton’s family moved to Leipzig, where his sister was a piano student at the Conservatory, and a decade later Algernon himself enrolled there, studying with Reinecke, Jadassohn and Richter and graduating in 1879. Ashton’s years at the Leipzig Conservatory coincided with the tenure of Alwin’s brother Carl as the Conservatory cello teacher, and Ashton would likely have heard early solo performances by his exact contemporary Julius Klengel, who had debuted in 1876 and was also studying composition with Jadassohn during this period. As it happened, Ashton dedicated his first published cello work, the three-movement Sonata in F Major, Op. 6 (written by 1880, before Richard Strauss’s more famous sonata with the same key and opus number), to David Popper.
In both title and structure, the Ashton Phantasiestucke seem to channel similarly-titled works by Schumann. Growing up, Ashton and his family attended Clara Schumann’s Leipzig soirees, so his exposure to Robert Schumann’s music started early and from the source closest to the composer. Even so, Malcolm MacDonald notes that the dance-like strains of the concluding Allegro scherzando sound “suspiciously like a hornpipe.”/5/ The degree of Alwin Schroeder’s involvement in the genesis of this work is not clear. The information about the dedications of the Sonata No. 1 and the Phantasiestucke comes from a source close to Ashton, Edmund van der Straeten, who wrote about Ashton's cello music in 1899 (The Strad, Vol 10, No 114 (Oct 1899), p.165). Straeten himself was the dedicate of Ashton’s Arioso, Op. 43.
In Ashton’s life and music, MacDonald and earlier scholars have found a tension between his German upbringing and his English identity. Most of his song settings are of German poets, and both surface and internal aspects of many of his works show his indebtedness to German musical traditions. This is most obvious in his 24 string quartet and 24 piano sonatas – in both sets, Ashton has adopted the principle of Bach’s Well-Tempered Keyboard, composing an example in each of the major and minor keys.
Ashton was also a prolific writer who sent thousands of letters to various editors from the late 1880s on. Later anthologized, these writings document Ashton's hobbies of collecting biographical inaccuracies and gravestone epitaphs. In an unexpected parallel with Alwin Schroeder, Ashton bid farewell to his side profession as “Corrector to the Press” in 1907, the same year that Alwin bid farewell to the United States. And both men couldn’t stay away: Algernon soon returned to the pen, and Alwin returned to the US even sooner.
Sheet music for all of the Ashton cello works on the Toccata Classics recording can be found in the library of the Royal Conservatory of Liege (Belgium).