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Classical 101

Humphrey Searle's Two Practical Cats

Recently I came across a recording of Humphrey Searle's Two Practical Cats, two movements for narrator, flute/piccolo, guitar, and cello based on texts from T.S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. Eliot's text was catapulted into global popularity with Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Cats.  I had never heard of the Searle piece, which predates Webber's treatment of Eliot's poem by almost three decades, but I find it great.  Here's a taste of the first of the two pieces in the set, Macavity: The Mystery Cat: http://www.wosu.org/audio/classical/2009/searle_macavity.mp3 Now a smidgen of Growltiger's Last Stand: http://www.wosu.org/audio/classical/2009/searle_growltiger.mp3 (Performed by Patrick Mason, narrator; Susan Palma Nidel, flute/piccolo; David Starobin, guitar; Timothy Eddy, cello) Searle's settings make the world of the child and the world of the adult collide within us.  His unapologetic atonal musical language goes against the innocent grain of Eliot's infantile, prattle-prone text.  The notion of a grown adult reciting Eliot's verse with the seriousness of delivering a Shakespearean monologue only reinforces the sense that in these pieces we live uneasily in two worlds--that of youth and that of youth-gone-by. These movements make us at once long for childhood and scoff at it.  We long for that idealized place where the rhythm of life is rhyming verse, not deadlines or mortgage payments.  But we scoff at childhood as the silliness that it was, only to yearn for it again when confronted by the harsh realities of the adult world. Searle's instrumentation also tells us we're caught between the childhood and adulthood.  Chamber ensembles with mixed instrumentation and narrator call to mind Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire--nothing childlike in that warped Commedia dell'Arte world--and the tradition of acidic modernist works it spawned in the twentieth century. At the same time, in the Searle pieces the growling of flute and cello gives Macavity such truly mysterious darkness, and a veritable timbrel fracas puts us square in the middle of Growltiger's melee.  These are evocations that, however clever and tuneful it may be, Webber's fun score just doesn't give us.  I can almost feel the fur flying.