An anthology, in the original Greek, means a collection of flowers; and the garden tended here by Felicity Lott and Graham Johnson contains many species from around the globe: violets, rosemary, mimosa, periwinkles, lilies, daisies, roses, jasmine, immortelles, sunflowers, snowflowers, saffron, primroses, walnut and orange-tree blossom, laurel, carnations, lilac, strawberries, cornflowers, convolvulus, cyclamen, broom, lilies-of-the-valley, marigold, iris and pinks. And these flowers grace gardens in Germany, France, America and England.
There are six songs each by Schumann and Wolf, and delights from four French composers. In the English part of the disc we range from Haydn Wood's well-known Roses of Picardy to the humorous Red Roses and Red Noses by Lord Berners, a take-off of Thomas Moore's The last rose of summer.
The anthology ends irreverently with Cabbages, Cabeans and Carrots, a music-hall song prefaced in the score with the words: 'I think all these Flower Songs are ridiculous'!
An anthology, in the original Greek, means a collection of flowers; and the garden, tended here by Felicity Lott and Graham Johnson, contains many species from around the globe: violets, rosemary, mimosa, periwinkles, lilies, daisies, roses, jasmine, immortelles, sunflowers, snowflowers, saffron, primroses, walnut and orange-tree blossom, laurel, carnations, lilac, strawberries, cornflowers, convolvulus, cyclamen, broom, lilies-of-the-valley, marigold, iris and pinks. And these flowers grace gardens in Germany, France and England.
Robert Schumann’s Mein Garten, to a poem by Hoffmann von Fallersleben, contains every imaginable flower fit for a lover’s garland, but not the flower of happiness – and Schumann, to underline the point, quotes at ‘Ob sie heimisch ist’ from Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
The manuscripts of Schumann’s Lieder often contain personal statements that illuminate the song either musically or autobiographically, and in the margin of Jasminenstrauch (Rückert) he wrote that he was attempting to find music for the stirrings of nature and the symbolism of human love. The jasmine, we are told, was green when it went to sleep (semiquavers in the piano suggest the breeze ruffling the jasmine blossom) but had turned white by dawn.
Herzeleid, a late song (January 1851), contains autobiographical relevance of a more sinister kind. Ulrich’s poem speaks of madness and death by drowning – a poignant anticipation of Schumann’s own breakdown and attempted suicide, when he hurled himself off a bridge into the Rhine at Düsseldorf in 1854. Die Blume der Ergebung (1850), however, breathes confidence in every bar. Rückert’s poem describes a flower in the garden waiting for its lover to appear, and the beautiful melody of the serene piano prelude and its subsequent development catches the girl’s quiet confidence to perfection.
Erstes Grün dates from 1840 and forms part of the twelve Kerner-Lieder, Op 35. The song contrasts human inferiority with the rejuvenating qualities of nature; Schumann wistfully juxtaposes G minor and G major, and in the final stanza (‘Wie treibt’s mich von den Menschen fort! Mein Leid das hebt kein Menschenwort’) reminds us how disparaging he could be about humankind. Volksliedchen is free of such melancholy; Rückert’s carefree poem describes a girl walking in her garden, wearing a green hat and thinking of her beloved – she loves him so dearly that she’d give him her heart, if she could tear it from her body. The accompaniment trips along jauntily as the girl enters the garden, but as she thinks of her lover, staccato turns legato, and the increasingly chromatic accompaniment mirrors her uneasy mind as she wonders what he might be up to. The witty little postlude manages to express all her conflicting emotions: adoration, impatience and even a touch of petulance.
Hugo Wolf composed his Mörike songs at Perchtesdorf, the small market town some twenty kilometres from the centre of Vienna, at the house of the Werner family in the Brunnergasse (today’s Hugo-Wolf-Haus) whither he repaired in January 1888 with vast quantities of manuscript paper, a portable bath, his indispensable coffee machine and, most important of all, a volume of Mörike poems. The conditions were spartan and the weather arctic, but the atmosphere of the place unleashed within him a period of creativity comparable to Schumann’s in 1840, and yielded no fewer than fifty-three Mörike settings in little over nine months. Thanks to Wolf’s extensive correspondence with friends, we have a fairly detailed description of his method of work. Most days began with a walk through the garden, with its huge mulberry tree, up to the Hochberg above the ‘Häuslein Windebang’, the garden house mentioned in Der Knabe und das Immlein, that belonged to the Werner family and where many of his songs were conceived. He would then work at the song in hand, either in his bedroom or study, reciting the poem aloud and working out the rhythm, harmony and melody on the piano. Lunch was usually taken in the Gasthaus ‘Zum schwarzen Adler’, followed by black coffee, a cigarette and another session of work.
His choice of Mörike poems was partly dictated by the seasons – so we find that Im Frühling and Er ist’s were composed in the spring. Though written within a few days of each other, they could not be more different. Im Frühling is in Wolf’s most symphonic vein and is dominated by a yearning figure that ideally reflects the ache of Mörike’s poem. It was written in the early morning of 13 May 1828 at a single sitting, and a copy of the poem was sent to his friend Johannes Mährlen with a letter, the opening of which should be printed in every anthology of garden poetry and music:
Here I sit and write in the sunny garden of the local Catholic priest. The arbour, with my desk and writing things, allows the sun to filter through the young honeysuckle and play upon my paper. The garden is situated rather high; over a low wall, on which one can sit like on a ledge, you have an unimpeded view onto the meadow …
Er ist’s could not be more different. Mörike wrote it on 9 March 1829, during a walk at Pflummern – yet another example of the somnambulistic approach to composition that he shared with Wolf. The poet included it in his novel Maler Nolten, where Nolten, recovering from an illness, hears it sung by the watchman’s daughter. Mörike’s rapture at the approach of spring is expressed through sight (‘blaues Band’), smell and touch (‘Düfte streifen’) and hearing (‘Harfenton’), and Wolf responds with a highly-charged, tremulous song that charges along, repeating phrases from the poem seemingly at random. And this most meticulous of Lieder composers, contrary to received opinion, could also be guilty of false accentuation, as Der Gärtner illustrates in the opening line, which should be stressed: ‘Auf ihrem Leibrösslein’, and not, as Wolf sets it, ‘Auf ihrem Leibrösslein’. But what matter? This is a delicious song with a most angular melody to illustrate the delicately prancing horse.
Another of Wolf’s famous spring Lieder is Goethe’s Frühling übers Jahr which, like Schumann’s Frühlingsnacht, is both spring song and love song at once. Wolf’s ubiquitous bell-like accompaniment must have been suggested by lines 3 and 4 in Goethe’s poem: ‘Da wanken Glöckchen/So weiß wie Schnee’ (‘Tiny bells waver/White as snow’). Anakreons Grab is one of the greatest songs of the Goethe-Liederbuch. The poem, apart from the single word ‘genoß’ (‘enjoyed’), ignores the Greek poet’s sybaritic nature and concentrates instead on the serenity of his old age – he died at 84. The elegiac metre inspired Wolf to write a song of exquisite tenderness, in which ‘Grab’ (a low F) and ‘Leben’ (a sustained D) are contrasted. But Death causes no terror, as the diatonic G major on the open-vowelled ‘Ruh’ (‘rest’) and the peaceful dying fall of the postlude tell us. Similar assuaging magic is wrought in the hypnotic Nachtzauber, where the romantic landscape of Eichendorff’s poem is suggested by Wolf’s swaying accompaniment and long melodic phrases.
One of the loveliest of César Franck’s few songs is Le mariage des roses, to a text by Eugène David, a priest who claimed that he was descended from King David. Literary sophistication was not Franck’s forte, but despite the saccharine text, this song, composed in 1871, is full of charm and deserves to be heard more often. Ernest Chausson’s Le temps des lilas, on the other hand, has been a favourite since its appearance in 1886. It forms the last part of the symphonic song-cycle Poème de l’amour et de la mer (not published in its entirety until 1893) and has always held the recital stage with its lavish melodic line and luscious harmony that express with haunting beauty the lament of a lover mourning lost happiness.
The exoticism of Bouchor’s text is capped in Les Roses d’Ispahan by Leconte de Lisle. Fauré allows nothing to disturb the languorous beauty of the text (he omitted two stanzas that disturbed the serene mood), and his depiction of Leilah among the moss-roses of Persia, the jasmine and the orange blossoms, is perhaps the most exotic song in the French repertoire, pace Ravel’s Chansons madécasses, the poems of which were written by Evariste Parny, a cousin, incidentally, of Leconte de Lisle’s mother. Fauré’s Green is the third song of his Cinq mélodies de Venise, a misnomer that needs some explanation. The Princesse de Polignac, to whom they are dedicated, had invited the exhausted Fauré to recuperate in Venice, where she hoped he would agree to collaborate with Verlaine on an opera. The idea came to nothing, but Fauré’s brief stay in Venice inspired the five Verlaine songs, of which only the first, Mandoline, with its plucked lute accompaniment, was actually composed in Venice. Verlaine’s title, ‘Green’, refers not only to the verdant opening line but also to the poem’s aura of innocence and inexperience. Fauré’s setting is all breathlessness – which explains why the composer wrote to Marguerite Baugnies: ‘In the case of Green, I cannot too strongly recommend to you not to sing it slowly: its nature is lively, moving, almost breathless. Above all, sing it for yourself alone.’ Mme Baugnies’ salon was frequented by a great many mélodie composers including Chabrier, Debussy, Ravel and Poulenc.
It was Poulenc who said of Emmanuel Chabrier’s song Lied, ‘Je ne sais rien d’aussi impertinent dans la mélodie française’ – the cheekiest song in the entire mélodie repertoire. It is also one of the wittiest, describing the meeting of the flirtatious, strawberry-picking Berthe with a gallant, aristocratic and lascivious elf. Toutes les fleurs! is to a text by Edmond Rostand, the husband of Rosemonde Gérard who wrote those wonderful animal poems ‘Les cigales’ and ‘Villanelle des petits canards’ that Chabrier was to make famous. Toutes les fleurs!, marked ‘Appassionato, con fuoco’, manages to mock the sentimentalities of the drawing-room ballad and at the same time to express true tenderness.
For their English and American gardens Felicity Lott and Graham Johnson have chosen nothing but roses. Roses of Picardy, perhaps the most popular and beautiful song to emerge from the First World War and an instant hit with British troops, was composed by Haydn Wood in 1916 to words by Fred E Weatherly, the ballad-writing lawyer whose 1,500 lyrics included such gems as ‘Danny Boy’, ‘The Holy City’ and ‘The Chorister’. His poems inspired a great number of songs with memorable melodies. As Weatherly himself wrote:
Why should a musician despise a simple melody and think himself great for constructing discords and dull phrases? It makes some of us say ‘he does not write a melody, because he can’t. He would like to write a song that the people would love and buy and make the royalties roll in. But he cannot do it, and so he poses as superior and considers the songs which the millions love inartistic’.
Lord Berners’ Red Roses and Red Noses is clearly a parody of Thomas Moore’s immortal song The last rose of summer. Berners not only wrote the words and the music but also designed the cover on which winged noses flutter down both sides of the page to meet, nose to nose, over the words ‘Lord Berners’. The poem was dedicated ‘to a young lady who expressed the wish that, when she died, Red Roses might be strewn upon her tomb’. Berners was a remarkable man, admired by Diaghilev and Stravinsky who advised him to abandon his diplomatic career in favour of music. He was an accomplished dilettante who not only composed music, but also wrote books, painted, and revelled in his own eccentricity. Much of his music is satirical, like the delightful epitaph that he penned for himself:
Here lies Lord Berners
Another composer of satires is the American Seymour Barab whose One Perfect Rose is the eighth in a series of twenty-four Dorothy Parker settings. Barab, a distinguished cellist, has written over two hundred songs and thirty operas. Another American John Musto, born in 1958, is renowned as a virtuoso and jazz pianist – a versatility that is evident in his compositions. The Rose Family (Robert Frost) shows a clever use of recitative and artful cadence, while Triolet is a haunting miniature which uses the ragtime tradition. Charles Villiers Stanford’s From the red rose, composed around 1876, is one of his earliest songs. He wrote well over a hundred, most of which, pace The Fairy Lough, are still unjustly neglected. Harry Plunket Greene summed up his qualities as ‘lilt, rhythm, sense of words, sense of atmosphere, musical imagery and illustration, directness of purpose and – guiding them all – imagination, humour and economy’.
This anthology of flower songs ends irreverently with Cabbages, Cabeans and Carrots, a music-hall song written and composed in 1919 by Wynn Stanley and Andrew Allen. It was ‘sung with enormous success’ by the Cockney comedian George Bass, who probably relished the spoken monologue introduction that was printed in the score:
I think all these Flower Songs are ridiculous. Take that old song Blue-bells I’ve gathered and brought them to you. Fancy singing that to the wife on washing day. Blue bells! What she wants is a Blue Bag … Then take that other old song I seek for thee in every flower. Fancy looking for Florrie Forde in a Buttercup, – you might as well look for a Hippopotamus in a Pomegranate …
Richard Stokes © 1997