"Daaaaaaaaaaa, ba du ba du ba du ba deedle-dee" — It's not often that the first two bars of a piece grip me so suddenly and surely as the opening of Madeleine Dring's trio for flute, oboe, and piano. Yet the very first time I heard them — streaming background music at the office, on a CD I had clicked on for a completely different piece — I dropped what I was doing and frantically tabbed over to Spotify to figure out what I was listening to. It's good to be reminded that even with all the repertoire I already know, there are still delightful surprises out there in the world of this music I love.
Regrettably, not everyone seems to be so taken with it, or at least, not taken with in in a way such that they immediately rush out and publish extensive, detailed biographies of Dring on the web. She was born into a family of amateur musicians in a borough of North London in 1923, and began playing the violin at an early age. She showed enough promise on that instrument that she was accepted to the junior division of the Royal College of Music at the age of 10, studying there on Saturdays while continuing to attend her regular school for the rest of the week. Eventually she attended as a full-time student, which allowed her to study with Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gordon Jacob, among others. (Many students were evacuated during WWII, but Dring was not among them. Her brother signed up for the war effort early on and was called to duty almost immediately; he was declared missing, presumed dead, in France shortly thereafter.)
In addition to music, Dring was drawn to the theatre, and she devoted considerable time to honing her acting abilities. Most of her appearances were on stage, but the IMDB does credit her with a role in a televised revue, Waiting for ITMA (1947). Also in 1947, she married her longtime fiancé, the oboist Roger Lord. Lord would often be called away to tour with the orchestra he played in, leaving Madeleine to take care of their child and otherwise run the house all by herself, a situation that she found increasingly difficult to balance with compositional activity as time went by. This, combined with her lack of interest in serialism led her to feel cut off from the broader compositional community, precipitating a crisis of confidence in her mid forties. (She vented many of these frustrations to Eugene Hemmer, an American composer with whom she traded many letters between 1967 and her death from a cerebral aneurism ten years later.)
Not that these doubts and difficulties stopped her from composing. She wrote many pieces for herself to sing — taking advantage of her perfect pitch, the results were often quite difficult for others to learn — as well as several for her husband to play, including the work featured today, her trio for flute, oboe, and piano from 1968. I've already mentioned the striking opening, but the rest of the first movement abounds in cheeky exuberance as the two woodwinds trade irregular melodic lines over a bouncy piano accompaniment. The second movement is sweet and simple without becoming cloying, a gentle piano introduction leading to a plaintive oboe solo that is shortly echoed by the flute. The instruments continue trading off in this manner, as tho engaged in relaxed conversation. Jarring chords launch the finale, but the dark mood quickly lightens into something more cheeky and irreverent, including hints of a parody of earlier mannered styles. A double cadenza full of brilliant passagework ensues, before the piano rejoins the fray to bring the work to its suave conclusion.