The making of this record was a very special labour of love for Sir Thomas who writes of it:
'The completion of this record marks something of a watershed for me in a career not without incident and highlight. So why, you may ask, should a recording of what were once mostly popular songs be just as telling, if not more so, than the commitment to disc of the great works of Mozart, Wagner, Verdi, Berlioz and so many other heavyweight names? I can only say that nostalgia and sentiment are almost entirely responsible, plus a genuine love of the often simple but very beautiful melodies that lie within these songs. The majority of them did indeed enjoy popularity in their day, still do in some cases. Others never made their mark, and I feel should have done, but who can ponder the eternal riddle of why, with works of not dissimilar quality, some make it and others don't. There's no academia behind this recording, just my very simple need to recapture memories I have of amateur singers coming through our house in Seaham Harbour, to practice these songs and others with my father at a time when there seemed a need for reassurance, perhaps, following two world wars. Then, there was no embarrassment at the sentiment common to so many of them, as one might experience now. My father, I think, would have liked the record and I want it to be in his beloved memory ... Thomas Allen'.
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The ballad was a prime ingredient of entertainment in Victorian drawing-rooms. Composers and versifiers turned out examples in their thousands for a captive market. Superior musical minds may have decried their simple sentiment and basic musical resource, but the best examples have remained popular into the twenty-first century. What’s more, even after the gramophone and radio combined to change the nature of home entertainment, composers and lyricists continued to produce new examples, not only in Britain but also in America. Examples of all kinds take their place in this varied recital.
The words of ‘Passing by’ are attributed to the seventeenth-century poet Robert Herrick, who wrote the words of the song ‘Cherry Ripe’. The composer, who used the pseudonym Edward C Purcell, survived his setting’s publication by almost sixty years, without achieving any comparable success. The song’s graceful vocal line helped make it one of the most enduring of Victorian ballads. Like others in this collection, it was memorably recorded—in 1940—by John McCormack.
The Irish poet and antiquary Samuel Ferguson was educated at Trinity College, Dublin. He was called to the bar in 1838 and became a Queen’s Counsellor in 1859. He retired in 1867 when he was appointed deputy-keeper of Irish records, for which he was knighted in 1878. He set his words for ‘The lark in the clear air’ to the traditional Irish air ‘An Trailliur’, performed here in an arrangement by Phyllis Tate.
The ready market for ballads provided a source of income for many aspiring young Victorian composers, of whom the future composer of the Savoy Operas was a prime example. ‘My Dearest Heart’ was published in 1876, the year after Trial by Jury, and proved one of his most successful creations in the genre. The author of the words was uncredited.
Wilfrid Ernest Sanderson was the son of a Wesleyan minister and the father of an Anglican bishop. Born in Ipswich of Lancastrian parents, he moved to Launceston in Cornwall as an infant, was educated in London, and died in Surrey. However, his career was spent mainly as organist, choirmaster and composer in Doncaster. In this last guise he produced some wonderfully stirring of ballads, among them ‘Until’. The beautiful words are by Edward Frederick Lockton, here using the pseudonym ‘Edward Teschemacher’.
Born in Slaithwaite, Yorkshire, Haydn Wood was given his unusual first name by parents inspired by Haydn’s Creation. He was raised on the Isle of Man and became one of the most successful of the ballad composers in the years around the First World War. Later, like Eric Coates, he moved on from ballad composition to become one of the prime composers of British light orchestral music. The most enduring of Wood’s ballads is ‘Roses of Picardy’, but others won almost equally huge popularity in their time. This charming example is one of the best.
The song ‘Drink to me only’ goes back long before Victorian balladry and must be one of the most famous of all British songs. The words appeared in 1716 in a collection of Ben Jonson’s poems called ‘The Forest’, and its musical setting to an old English air can be traced back at least to around 1780. The present arrangement of that traditional air is by Roger Quilter.
Love songs using the imagery of birds, roses and gardens were a popular facet of Edwardian and Georgian ballads, and Haydn Wood was clearly as partial to them as anybody. Along with the likes of ‘Roses of Picardy’ and ‘Love’s Garden of Roses’, this further example helped keep up spirits by providing a reminder of the beauty of nature during the harsh days of World War I.The importance of a telling setting of a ballad’s title is clearly demonstrated by this lovely example, which was sent on the road to popularity by being interpolated into Sidney Jones’s highly successful musical play The Geisha. The composer, John Mais Capel, had a varied theatrical career as singer, musical director and composer. The lyricist, Graham Clifton Bingham, was the son of a Bristol bookseller. He wrote stories, children’s books and a large number of song lyrics, of which the most famous is ‘Love’s Old Sweet Song’.
Alison Travers had a few years of musical prominence during the 1920s, when various piano and vocal compositions and orchestral suites by her were published. After receiving a good musical education, she went to live in the middle of the Malayan jungle without even a piano. There she wrote down as best she could the melodies which came to her, and on returning to London she had various dances published. It was Leslie Boosey, of the publisher Boosey & Co, who suggested she try ballad-writing. This she did most successfully with ‘A Mood’, whose words were written by Edward J Macdermott, the manager of the Finsbury Park Empire.
Born in London in 1875, Arthur Ambrose Penn was supposedly a direct descendant of William Penn, the Quaker founder of Pennsylvania. Like this famous ancestor, Penn emigrated to America, where he wrote words and music for many songs and operettas. He described the inspiration for ‘Smilin’ through’ as being an advertisement on a train, showing a cottage at the end of a road winding through fields. “I wrote the song in twenty minutes,” he remembered, “the music first, then the words, on the back of an envelope coming in one day on a Long Island train. I had no title for it—that came with the words.”
Arthur Sullivan composed this moving example of Victorian faith after being confined to the bedside of his elder brother Frederic during his last illness. The words were by the poetess Adelaide Anne Procter, and the song was carried to popularity in Victorian Britain by the singer Antoinette Stirling. Its huge popularity is demonstrated by the fact that it was even sung by Caruso, who wrote out the words in Italian phonetics for the purpose.
A barrister by profession, Fred Weatherly was one of the most prolific and successful writers of ballad lyrics. (He wrote, among many other things, the words to ‘Danny Boy’.) As for ‘Stephen Adams’, that was the pen-name of Liverpool-born Michael Maybrick, who also pursued a career as a singer under his real name. For the final twenty-five years of his life Maybrick lived at Ryde, Isle of Wight, where he was elected mayor five times. In 1889 he had been a witness in a sensational trial following the murder of his brother James, a Liverpool cotton-broker, and the case has recently attracted renewed attention with the publication of a Victorian diary supposedly identifying James Maybrick as the serial-killer, Jack the Ripper.
John Gair Robson, better known as Jack Robson, was one of the best-loved figures on Tyneside for his popular songs. These included examples in Geordie dialect such as ‘Whereivvor ye gan ye’re sure to find a Geordie’ and ‘The puddens that me mother used to myek’. More formal in style was his evocation of the local scenery of ‘The Cheviot Hills’. Robson was born in Annitsford, the same Northumbrian village as the singer Owen Brannigan. An organist and school headmaster, he used his musical talents to benefit pupils wherever he taught in Northumberland.
Paul Dresser (né Dreiser) was the older brother of Theodore Dreiser, author of An American Tragedy and other novels. Born in Terre Haute, Indiana, Paul became an actor, playwright, songwriter, producer and music publisher, writing over a hundred songs for New York City’s ‘Tin Pan Alley’. The most famous was this one, in which he recalled his boyhood days on the banks of the Wabash river. Dresser died destitute before his fiftieth birthday, but this song gave him celebrity—above all in his native state, where it was adopted as the Indiana State Song.
The importance of Haydn Wood’s contributions to the ballad repertoire is demonstrated by this further tender example. The poet this time is ‘Royden Barrie’, a pseudonym that hid the identity of Rodney Bennett, a writer of educational textbooks who was also the father of composer Richard Rodney Bennett.
James Joyce mentions the song ‘She is far from the land’ in Ulysses. It appeared originally around 1810 in Volume 4 of the Irish poet Thomas Moore’s Irish Melodies, using an old Irish air ‘Open the door’. Later, this new setting was provided by Frank Lambert, who was one of the most successful of ballad composers for the publisher Chappell & Co. Around 1900. Moore’s lyric was inspired by Robert Emmet, an Irish patriot hanged after leading an uprising in Dublin in 1803, and his fiancée, Sarah Curran, who subsequently died of a broken heart.
Albert Edward Housman was a leading British poet of his time, as well as an eminent classical scholar. He was born near Bromsgrove in Worcestershire, and his poetry includes nostalgic evocations of the countryside near where he was brought up. ‘In Summertime on Bredon’, evoking the hill of that name, comes from the celebrated cycle A Shropshire Lad. The setting here is by Gerald Graham Peel, who composed over a hundred songs and made something of a speciality of Housman settings.
Besides his ballads, J Airlie Dix was a substantial composer of comic songs, some of which were interpolated into stage shows in the early years of the twentieth century. It was with this setting of stirring words by John Francis Barron that he achieved his most lasting success.
In this fourth example on this disc of Haydn Wood’s effective love songs, the imagery this time is not of flowers and gardens but birds.
The Victorian preoccupation with religion meant that, alongside the secular ballad, the sacred song was an important part of the parlour repertory. Frank Lambert, who provided the setting of ‘She is far from the land’, also contributed this typical example of the sacred song.
Better known as ‘Keep the home fires burning’, this song was the first big success of Cardiff-born future matinée idol and composer of hugely popular romantic musicals, Ivor Novello. It proved a rallying song for troops sent abroad to the battlefields of World War I. Poignantly, the words were by American journalist and poetess Lena Guilbert Ford, who lost her life in March 1918 when a Zeppelin airship dropped a bomb on her home in Maida Vale, London.
By a curious coincidence, ‘Trees’—like ‘Till the boys come home’—has verses by an American journalist and poet who lost his life in World War I. It was supposedly an old oak tree in his native New Brunswick, New Jersey, that inspired Joyce Kilmer’s lovely poem, which was published in 1913 and at once became popular. However, Kilmer died as an army sergeant in Seringes, France, in July 1918. The musical setting by composer and educator Oscar Rasbach appeared four years later, and appropriately also enjoyed much popularity in France.
Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Frederick O’Connor was a distinguished soldier, who served in India for many years. A prisoner of war in Persia in World War I, he served on special duties in Siberia in 1918 and was British Envoy in Nepal from 1921 to 1925. He was knighted on his retirement from the Indian Political Department in 1925, after which he pursued widespread interests. He was a close friend of Walt Disney and British royalty, and his keen interest in music led to the composition of published songs. These included ‘The Old House’, which is another that owes its popularity to having been recorded—in November 1939—by John McCormack. The song recalls an old cottage in Ireland where a childhood nanny of O’Connor’s lived.
‘Royden Barrie’ appears once again (see ‘A brown bird singing’), this time as lyricist for Eric Coates. Born in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire, Coates had over 130 published songs to his credit, most of them before he made an even deeper impression as the master of elegantly tuneful light orchestral music. Barrie inspired Coates to some of his most successful songs, as witness the easy melodic invention of this example. This song, too, enjoyed popularity in French translation.
Composed in the year when George V was briefly succeeded on the British throne by Edward VIII, this elegant and dignified song was one of the last ballads to enter standard currency. That it did so is particularly thanks, once again, to a John McCormack recording from November 1939. The verse is again by Edward Frederick Lockton, this time writing under his real name.
Andrew Lamb © 2002