Let the florid music praise! [3'39]
As it is, plenty [1'41]
Lynne Dawson is one of Britain's best-loved and most popular singers, especially since her appearance at the televised funeral of Princess Diana. She has taken part in innumerable recordings on many labels, including Hyperion, but has not so far had a disc dedicated solely to her. So here is her first solo CD on which she sings her own selection of English songs with her chosen pianist Malcolm Martineau. As the repertoire list shows, the programme is a widely varied one, with composers from Parry to Britten (whose cycle provides the disc with its title), and it includes several rarely heard songs as well as many well-known ones. Read Drofnatsky's name backwards and you will discover the real identity of the composer of these Edward Lear limerick settings.
We happily link an amelioration of musical standards in Britain with the ‘renaissance’ of the late Victorian era when a new sense of cultural optimism and change gradually seemed to grip concert halls, orchestras, choral societies, festivals, educational and ecclesiastical institutions, and, of course, the indigenous composer. Part of that process of national ‘rebirth’ was to rediscover the power and symbolism of the English language, and its fertile influence on a new generation of creative musicians. While the seeds of national song were planted in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was in the nineteenth century that the solo art song became transformed into a sophisticated matrix of imagery, organicism and intimacy, where the interaction of music and language formed part of a wider cultural, socio-political equation, coloured by a new national consciousness. There are indications that English composers of the earlier nineteenth century began to comprehend the potential of song as a genre of high musical art in emulation of their Austro-German idols, Schubert and Schumann (one thinks especially of Loder, Hatton, Pierson, Sullivan, Stainer and, early on, Stanford’s two Heine sets Opp 4 and 7, and Parry’s settings of Bodenstedt’s translations of Shakespeare), but it was with Parry’s English Lyrics – songs that self-consciously placed the vernacular at their centre – that an art form, unambiguously and identifiably national in character, was confronted for the first time.
The first two volumes of Parry’s twelve volumes of English Lyrics were written between 1874 and 1885, but the main body of his song output dates from the mid-1890s with the publication by Novello of volumes three and four. Armida’s Garden, composed at sea in March 1908 (and revised soon after) was published in 1909 as part of volume nine and was the fifth of seven settings of Mary Coleridge (the daughter of Arthur Duke Coleridge, a friend and amateur singer) who had died in 1907. Coleridge, who had been encouraged by Bridges, published her first set of verse, Fancy’s Following, in 1896 from which the poem for this song was taken. At its heart is the burning Victorian issue of eschatology, of the life hereafter, the bliss of an ideal love, and of melancholy in the inevitable parting of lovers. Parry’s setting captures this sense of mystery and enchantment, but most importantly the heavily modified second verse embodies that implicit questioning (note, for example, the gentle yet arresting progressions at the end of the first line) which provokes a mood of passionate yearning at the climax and a quizzical ending for the voice (‘than “Alas”’). My heart is like a singing bird, a setting of Christina Rossetti’s poem ‘A birthday’ from Goblin Market and other Poems (1862), appeared in Set X, though not published until 1918. The collection dates, however, from 1909 when it was sung at Bechstein Hall on 16 November by Agnes Hamilton Harty (née Nicholls), its dedicatee. An impassioned love song, in much the same tradition as Parry’s other high-class drawing-room creations (such as When comes my Gwen from volume six), My heart is like a singing bird imparts a sense of nervous exhilaration as the singer awaits the arrival of her beloved.
La Belle Dame sans Merci, a setting of Keats’s famous poem, was first performed on 30 October 1877 at a CUMS chamber concert. Though Stanford had completed the work earlier that year, he had, according to his recollection in Musical Composition (pp. 143-4), actually sketched ideas as long ago as 1866. But, being conscious of his lack of technique, he put the song away and forgot about it. Eleven years later, unaware of his earlier efforts, he came across the poem again and wrote the song without hitch or interruption. Most surprising to the composer, however, was the rediscovery of his juvenile sketches in or around 1892 and, to his amazement, the revelation that the first three verses of the early manuscript were virtually identical with the published version. The song was published by Stanley Lucas in 1878 and later popularised by Herbert Thorndike whom Plunket Greene credited with being ‘the first man to sing Stanford’s songs, and to him must be given the credit of being the first “interpreter” of the “imaginative” school of singing which those songs initiated’. In 1888 it was orchestrated by the composer for a concert at the Royal College of Music (26 March) and it was later sung in a German translation by Rudolf von Milde in a concert entirely of Stanford’s works in Berlin on 15 January 1889. The present location of this orchestral version is as yet unknown.
Dedicated to his close friend, barrister and enthusiastic amateur musician, Arthur Duke Coleridge, La Belle Dame is a ballad that, replete with accompanimental imagery, looks back to the narrative traditions of Schubert and Loewe. Making pointed use of major-minor fluctuations (in much the same manner as Schubert and Loewe) within a strophic-variation structure, Stanford achieves a striking effect when he suddenly breaks the mould with a shift from F (the tonic) to the dominant of A (‘I saw pale kings and princes too’), heightening the sense of ghostly terror. Equally impressive is the harmonic progression of Stanford’s transition back to the recapitulation of Keats’s opening text as the knight awakens to find himself on the cold hill’s side, alone and desolate.
Stanford is known for his irascible, quarrelsome, and often formidable personality which many of his pupils came to fear as they went for composition lessons in Prince Consort Road. Yet, as is evidenced by the comedy of Shamus O’Brien (1896), the hilarious Elegia Maccheronica (a nonsense pot-pourri of Italian words ‘over the passing of the old Italian opera’, written as a Christmas gift for Plunket Greene in 1921), the (albeit misplaced) satirical Ode to Discord (1908) ‘dedicated (without permission) to the Amalgamated Society of Boiler-makers’, and the Nonsense Rhymes by Edward Lear replete with bogus opus numbers (Op 365 et seq.) and a pseudo-Eastern-European anagram of the composer ‘Karel Drofnatski’, it is clear that Stanford possessed a mischievous, dry sense of humour which, according to Plunket Greene, he could be persuaded to reveal at parties. In his 1935 biography of Stanford, Plunket Greene lamented:
…that these little masterpieces of happy caricature [had] been lost. As usual, no one of us looked ahead or took any steps to see that they were written down. He [Stanford] was always made to sing them himself, and then only when the surroundings were thoroughly congenial. It was a side of him quite unfamiliar to most people, but one which showed him at his very best. If only some of those nervous pupils could have seen him at the pianoforte, his mind dictating the imagery and his fingers reproducing it by magic! [H Plunket Greene, Charles Villiers Stanford (London 1935), 245]
Unknown to Greene, Stanford had in fact committed his ‘Limericks’ to paper on two occasions. Both manuscripts survive, the revised version of which (now in the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York) was discovered among the bomb-damaged archives of Stainer & Bell and used as the source for publication in 1960. The first of Lear’s rhymes to appear in the collection of fourteen in total was The Hardy Norse-woman (Op 365) which, marked ‘Allegro griegoso’, comically mimics Peer Gynt, which is also evident from the comments the composer appended at the end:
The composer shows, almost too clearly, his close acquaintanceship with the modern Scandinavian school. He explains however that he was anxious to illustrate with appropriate local colour an incident which took place at the première of one of Ibsen’s dramas. The young lady suffered physically from a front place which she secured in the gallery queue. She proved however by her courageous mental superiority under adverse circumstances, that she had no sympathy with the pessimism of the great playwright of her country; taking rather as her motto the view of Alfred de Musset, “Il faut qu’une porte soit ouverte ou fermée.”
The Compleat Virtuoso (Op 366) was ‘dedicated to his friends, the great violinists of Europe’. ‘This plagiarism’, Stanford added, ‘is almost too obvious; “it ceases to be plagiarism and becomes quotation”. A very little investigation revealed the fact that this work is really a composition by the famous Max van Beetelssohn’. This amusing miniature quotes freely from the concertos of Mendelssohn, Beethoven, and Bruch, works which Stanford conducted on many occasions with numerous virtuosi, though one suspects that Joachim was the principal dedicatee. For The Aquiline Snub (Op 375) Stanford’s satirical port of call was Bach:
A little careful reasoning soon enabled us to identify the real author of this touching Arioso. The owner of the nose (obviously a long one, though not too long) was a remarkable man. The musical style was that of a remarkable man; the remarkable man had a long nose; ergo the remarkable man must be John Sebastian. Bach’s residence in Leipzig, the Thomas School, was but a stone’s throw from the quarter, known as the Brühl, which was mainly peopled by Jews. The song is evidently a musical expression of strong protest, addressed to some friend who had offended Sebastian’s strong Anti-Semite views by suggesting that his nose was of the length and type so familiar in the adjoining street.
Perhaps the most ironic number is Limmerich ohne Worte (Op 372) which, as an ‘anti-setting’ (for piano alone) makes reference to Mendelssohn’s unique invention:
Our composer admits that this song without words is of well-known origin, but he supplies it as a specimen pattern or model, to which any poem of the Limerick type can be sung. He calls attention to the fact that this procedure is frequently followed in this country in the case of Hymns; poems of very varied sentiments being adapted to the same tune; and suggests, not without a touch of satire, that it may save trouble to use this theme for Lear’s entire collection.
Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst were pupils of Stanford at the RCM during that fertile period of the mid-1890s which included John Ireland, Fritz Hart, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and William Hurlstone. Both composers were undoubtedly influenced by the plethora of folksong publications that had appeared during the nineteenth century. Enthusiasm for the ethnic repertoire had gathered pace with the serial publication of Thomas Moore’s Irish melodies between 1808 and 1834 and the huge popularity of The lark in the clear air to words by Sir Samuel Ferguson; and there were numerous later editions of folk-songs, not least Stanford’s trend-setting Songs of Old Ireland of 1882. But most significant for the young impressionable Vaughan Williams was the volume English County Songs (1893) jointly edited by Lucy Broadwood and J A Fuller Maitland, the founding of the Folk Song Society in 1898, and the work of Cecil Sharp who had become England’s most assiduous folksong collector. Folksongs from the Eastern Counties, edited by Sharp, were collected and arranged by Vaughan Williams between 1903 and 1906, and included Through Bushes and through Briars which, as part of over 800 folk melodies collected, was taken down from the singing of Charles Pottipher in the Essex village of Ingrave near Brentwood on 4 December 1904.
Silent Noon, one of Vaughan Williams’s best-loved solo songs, dates from much the same period (c1902) and was one of six settings of sonnets from Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s The House of Life. The song cycle in its entirety was performed by Edith Clegg and Hamilton Harty at Bechstein Hall on 2 December 1904, but Silent Noon was heard some time earlier when it was sung by Francis Harford at St James’s Hall on 10 March 1903. Rossetti’s voluptuous language is matched by a sonorous, expansive melody which, with its affecting diatonicism, still shows Vaughan Williams under the spell of Parry, but the modulation into the more tonally fluid central paragraph at ‘All round our nest’ shows a post-Wagnerian awareness of new tonal possibilities. The return of the opening melody (‘Oh! clasp we to our hearts, for deathless dower’) and the home key is a moment of great beauty and emotional power which is matched by the hushed intensity of the closing bars.
Roger Quilter, who studied in Frankfurt under Iwan Knorr, began to develop a reputation as a song-writer when Denham Price sang his Songs of the Sea Op 1 at the Crystal Palace in 1900, though it was Gervase Elwes who, with the cycle Julia Op 5 (1905) and the Seven Elizabethan Lyrics Op 12 (1908), championed his works. Fair House of Joy and My Life’s Delight were both included in the latter collection and written in late 1907. Fair House of Joy, attributed to Tobias Hume, remained an immensely popular text for many English composers. Passionate, yet tinged with that characteristic conceit of melancholy, so typical of Elizabethan love lyrics, the text is set with one of Quilter’s most generous melodic lines, full of rich, imaginative contours and irregular phrase-lengths. The same may be said of the more effusive My Life’s Delight which also shows the skill of Quilter’s accompanimental writing with its elusive tapestry of counter-melodies and inner voices, lusciously varied in register and texture.
As a young Etonian, Philip Heseltine (better known by his composer-pseudonym, Peter Warlock) had been much taken with the songs of Quilter and later acknowledged his indebtedness in an inscription written on one of his songs sent to the older man: ‘To R. Q. without whom there could have been no P. W.’. Warlock’s musical style and outlook proved to be a complicated amalgam. Rejecting the established institutional seats of composition teaching at London’s RCM and RAM, and unable to settle to any form of rigorous training – periods in Oxford, Cologne, and London were abortive – he was instead profoundly influenced by Delius and van Dieren, which he combined with a fascination for English music of the sixteenth century. Warlock’s collection Lilligay was composed in July and August of 1922 and occurred virtually at the apogee of his creative output. Already written were his masterpieces such as A Full Heart (1918) and the first version of his Yeats cycle The Curlew (1920), works which, having assimilated Delius’s individual blend of chromaticism and functional harmony and the dissonance of van Dieren’s contrapuntal textures, suggested that Warlock’s style might develop in a new and challenging, modernist direction. In fact Lilligay, the two sets of Peterisms (published in 1923 and 1924), and the revised version of The Curlew (1922) represented that stylistic high-water mark which, with few exceptions, Warlock never again equalled. Dedicated to Irene Heseltine, a cousin who had settled in South Africa, Lilligay was, according to the composer, conceived during long walks in the Welsh hills, close to the Heseltine’s family home Cefn-Bryntalch at Abermule, Montgomeryshire. The poems were taken from an anthology edited and published by Victor Neuberg, poet, publisher, and one-time disciple of Aleister Crowley, who worked from his Vine Press at Steyning in Sussex. Neuberg’s collection of poems, Lilligay, subtitled An Anthology of Anonymous Poems, appeared in 1920 and was intended to have a rural, folksong manner. Warlock responded with quasi-folk melodies which were an essential component of the simple, repetitive pattern of each song and equally paradigmatical was the manner of the increasingly elaborate accompanimental background of complex harmonies, texture and counterpoint, recalling the techniques of Percy Grainger who practised this variegational procedure in so many of his own folksong arrangements.
The text of The Distracted Maid is actually a paraphrase and reworking of a Cornish folksong collected by Balfour Gardiner (I love my love) and arranged by Holst as the third of his Six Choral Folksongs (1916). Warlock’s setting makes no reference to the original folk melody, but his melody nevertheless adopts a simple, modal shape which is repeated unchanged throughout the song. Johnnie wi’ the Tye, replete with Scotch snap is very much a ‘border ballad’ in style, though the chromatic divergence of the third line of the melody (‘And O as he kittl’d me’) betrays its contemporary origins, as does Warlock’s intense chromaticism. The Shoemaker, a lively scherzo, sets only three of Neuberg’s ten verses; this, so Fred Tomlinson tells us, was ‘probably out of deference to his [Warlock’s] mother, who might have been offended by the others and might have refused to advance the money for their publication’. The song has much in common with Warlock’s other lively, rustic settings, such as Away to Twiver and Roister Doister. The fourth song included here from the collection, Burd Ellen and Young Tamlane, is a lament whose harmonic vocabulary reaches an extraordinary peak of intensity at the searing mention of ‘the women’s curse’.
The Night and My Own Country (both 1926) were two of a group of three settings by Hilaire Belloc, a one-time Liberal MP, prolific essayist on social, political and religious topics, and versatile poet. My Own Country is an example of that simple strophic design that Warlock so often essayed, given breadth and fluidity by its flowing, ever-changing phraseology and subtle modulation. The Night, also strophic, recalls the variegational techniques of Lilligay in its constant harmonic amplification which in turn provides a more sinister overtone to the setting’s prayerful atmosphere.
Belloc’s text was also the subject of one of Ivor Gurney’s finest settings, written in 1920. One of his most enduring settings, however, was Sleep, the fourth of Five Elizabethan Songs written during the first half of 1912 while Gurney was studying with Stanford at the RCM. Gurney’s instincts were principally of the late nineteenth century where German lieder, filtered through the English Lyrics of Parry, were the defining imperatives. This can be felt not only in the harmonic idiom of Gurney’s songs but also in the disposition of part-writing, the spacing of chords, and the love of multiple appoggiaturas, all enclosed within fundamentally diatonic parameters. In Sleep, a setting of Fletcher’s well-known lyric, Gurney conveys the poem’s sense of personal suffering in love that finds comfort in stillness and dreams, infusing the accompaniment with a gentle, rocking figure that invokes the hypnotism of a lullaby. A close friend of Gurney and a fellow pupil (first of Herbert Brewer at Gloucester Cathedral, and later of Stanford), Herbert Howells warmed to his friend’s innate sensitivity to poetry and England’s Tudor legacy, and was moved to orchestrate two of the songs Gurney composed in the trenches during the First World War. King David was completed on 7 August 1919 and dedicated to the tenor John Coates. One of many settings Howells made of poetry by his friend Walter de la Mare, it reflected the composer’s enchantment with the movement of so-called ‘Georgian’ poets, established by the editions of Edward Marsh and Harold Monro of the Poetry Bookshop between 1911 and 1922. With some justification Howells considered King David one of his finest works. De la Mare’s narrative dimension is wonderfully realised in the tonal ‘journey’ from E flat minor, through its relative G flat major, to the second phase of the song framed by a glowing E major. Furthermore, Howells builds into his ‘scena’ (for its is surely larger than the traditional concept of a ‘song’) an impressive matrix of motivic associations, the most conspicuous of which are the progressions of ‘lament’ (iv9–I–iv9) in the opening bars, transformed and inverted in the E major phase (I–IV–I), and the melancholy utterance of the nightingale whose impassioned singing rings out exclusively in the upper register of the piano.
Gerald Finzi’s collection of seven songs Oh fair to see Op 13b was published posthumously in 1965. Since we loved, a setting of a short lyric from Robert Bridges’ New Poems (1899), was completed on 28 August 1956; it was his last composition. No longer than sixteen bars, the song is nevertheless one of Finzi’s most poignant declarations of love, and, in its concentrated through-composed design, one of his most concise musical miniatures. As I lay in the early sun, by the Georgian poet Edward Shanks, was composed in 1921 in the wake of an unpublished by Gurney (for whom Finzi remained a lifelong advocate) and a published one by Armstrong Gibbs. Transparently diatonic with understated modal inflections, Finzi’s lush harmony and ecstatic vocal contours underpin Shanks’s pastoral daydream. Written eight years later (though probably revised in 1940), Oh fair to see is another aphoristic construction consisting of no more than two extended vocal phrases. Here, however, Finzi’s style has a greater contrapuntal succinctness (notably in the accompaniment), and the prose-like delivery of the vocal line with its careful placing of syllable and rhythm looks forward to the more spacious canvas of Intimations of Immortality which Finzi produced for the Gloucester Festival in 1950.
Benjamin Britten met W H Auden in July 1935. Auden was also working for the GPO Film Unit for whom Britten was also working on a commission for a short documentary, The King’s Stamp. In 1936 the two men collaborated together on two films, Coal Face and Night Mail, now regarded as masterpieces of their genre, and in 1937, worked together again on The Way to the Sea for Strand Films. Their first major artistic collaboration was, however, the symphonic cycle for voice and orchestra, Our Hunting Fathers Op 8, written in 1936 under the shadow of the Spanish Civil War. The following year Britten bought The Old Mill at Snape on the Suffolk coast and soon after completed On this Island Op 11, using texts exclusively by Auden. It was broadcast by the BBC for the first time on 19 November 1937 by the soprano Sophie Wyss (for whom Britten had written Our Hunting Fathers) with Britten at the piano. The five songs of Britten’s cycle each explore an independent compositional logic whose procedures are disarmingly traditional, simple in texture, and uncomplicated in structural design.
Emulation of baroque mannerisms colours the first song, Let the florid music praise!.The opening arpeggios (in a characteristic D major) and their transference to the voice as a quasi-coloratura are suggestive of Handel, but in the more contemplative ‘siciliano’ in G minor, which forms the second half of the song, the arpeggio motive is transformed into an affecting ‘obbligato’. Now the leaves are falling fast, a disturbing meditation on the last hours of life, is portrayed in passages of semiquavers for the voice, grouped in pairs for each syllable, supported by rising harmonies in the right hand of the piano and the left’s punctuative V-I at the end of each phrase. In the third verse of Britten’s uncomplicated strophic plan, these unostentatious components are all developed, rising to a climax on the Neapolitan, G flat. This high point of emotional anxiety (‘And the angel will not come’) is checked by the tranquil restatement of the introduction (‘Cold, impossible, ahead Lifts the mountain’s lovely head’) which, as a functional dominant, provides a transition to the coda, itself a muscial distillation of the entire song. In Seascape, strong contrapuntal lines, extended pedal points, and repetitive, wave-like figurations portray the elemental experience of beholding the vast seascape from the edge of a cliff. Such simplicity and economy of means is revealed with even greater astringency in Nocturne whose two principal features are its block chords and a vocal line that commences with a rising arpeggio and tails off with a winding descent. Much of the striking beauty of the song resides in the composer’s inventive, slow-moving harmony, and the compelling balance he creates between progressions of an unconventional and conventional type. Like the second song of the cycle, Britten pursues a modified strophic design, developing his two constituent strands of material sequentially (‘While the splendid and the proud’) in the third verse. The final strophe of text is, however, subtly altered. After a ponderous monotone in the voice (‘Unpursued by hostile force’) in a more remote tonal area, the original vocal arpeggio begins again (‘Calmly till the morning break’) exceeding its former octave span and phrase-length to a high G. This event, which serves to emphasise the foreign key of C minor, makes the transforming shift back to the home tonality of C sharp minor all the more arresting, and the piano’s ‘wordless’ utterance of the secondary melodic strand is made the more eloquent by the singer’s brief closing comment (‘then gently wake’). As it is, plenty is a reflection of Auden’s distaste for the bourgeoisie, the biting satire of which Britten dresses up in a distorted pastiche of pre-war dance music.
Jeremy Dibble © 2001