On Wenlock Edge [3'33]
Is my team ploughing? [3'48]
Far in a western brookland [4'11]
On the idle hill of summer [2'58]
When I was one-and-twenty [1'26]
James Gilchrist's second solo album with Linn Records, On Wenlock Edge, explores the works of the great English composers Vaughan Williams, Gurney, Bliss and Warlock.
In an article about Ralph Vaughan Williams’ song cycle On Wenlock Edge, Edwin Evans — a critic noted for his promotion in England of contemporary French music — reported that in around 1907 Vaughan Williams, ‘Like many another English composer who has gone through the academic mill, had made the discovery that his training had left him inarticulate at the very time when he was ripe for self-expression. He had something to say and was tongue-tied.’ Vaughan Williams consulted Evans who later recalled that, ‘As the French composers, whatever they had to say, seemed to have little difficulty in expressing themselves, he thought he might learn from them’. Although Evans provided him with a letter of introduction to Vincent D’Indy, when he arrived in Paris in January 1908, at the age of thirty-five, it was to a composer three years his junior that he went: Maurice Ravel.
Vaughan Williams later recalled that when he returned from Paris three months later, ‘I came back with a bad attack of French fever and wrote a string quartet which caused a friend to say that I must have been having tea with Debussy’. The quartet — Vaughan Williams’ first, in G minor — shows very obvious French influence, including some melodic echoes of Ravel’s own quartet in the first movement. Despite the overt French influence in the work, Vaughan Williams succeeded in asserting both his individuality and an assuredly English voice, perhaps grounded by his work on English folk melodies — begun in earnest in 1904 — distinct echoes of which are heard particularly in the last movement of the quartet.
The quartet was followed in 1909 by his song cycle to poems of A. E. Housman for tenor, string quartet and piano, On Wenlock Edge. Following a performance of the cycle in May 1920, given by the work’s first interpreter, Gervase Elwes, Ivor Gurney wrote of the work on his programme:
‘Purely English words retranslated and reinforced by almost purely English music — the product of a great mind not always working at the full of its power, but there continually and clearly apparent. The French mannerisms must be forgotten in the strong Englishness of the prevailing mood — in the unmistakable spirit of the time of creation. England is the spring of emotion, the centre of power, and the pictures of her, the breath of her earth and growing things are continually felt through the lovely sound.’
The French influence is particularly noticeable in ‘Bredon Hill’, the accompaniment of which is redolent of ‘La Vallée des Cloches’ from Ravel’s Miroirs for piano (1905). However, the work as a whole seems to bear a more overriding influence. The use of the piano quintet as the accompanying ensemble was an innovation in English music. Before the time of On Wenlock Edge the string quartet alone had been used as an accompaniment to song by Henry Walford Davies in 1894 (Prospice), and it would go on to be used by a number of other composers, including Vaughan Williams. However, its use never caught on as much as one might have supposed, especially given that musicians were beginning to rediscover and take on influences from England’s Golden Age, the Elizabethan period, in the revival of which the quartet could be seen as the natural successor to the viol consort. The introduction of the piano into the ensemble, as an independent soloist rather than keyboard continuo, has few precursors and probably takes its lead from Ravel’s teacher, Gabriel Fauré. His Paul Verlaine cycle, La Bonne Chanson, had been composed in 1892-4 with piano accompaniment; in 1898 — a year after Ravel had come under his tutelage — Fauré arranged it for piano and string quintet. 1898 also saw a song with piano quintet by Ernest Chausson: his last completed work, Chanson Perpétuelle. Although performed in 1899 this remained unpublished until 1911.
Vaughan Williams sets six poems from A.E. Housman’s first and most enduring collection, A Shropshire Lad (1896). The landscape inhabited by Housman is that of a mythical, idealised Shropshire, similar to the Wessex evoked in the novels of Thomas Hardy. His dominant themes are love, and a post-industrial pastoral nostalgia, infused with expressions of disillusionment at the sacrifice of the young soldiers going to war, never to return. The poems, with their directness of speech and simple forms, influenced by Scottish Border Ballads and the work of Heinrich Heine, were easy fodder for composers. In fact Gurney, writing from the trenches during the First World War, warned of the difficulty of setting them well because of their immediacy: ‘Such precise and measured verses are too easy to set … One can only set them, say, a little better than Hermann Lohr or Maud Valerie White can; for their abilities are quite up to setting such poems’. Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge came on the cusp of a burgeoning of musical settings, reinforced by the fresh relevance of the sentiments of Housman’s poems with the coming of the First World War.
Whilst Housman never refused permission for his poems to be set, his reticence to allow the original poems to be printed in programmes and to accept royalties from songs seems to demonstrate a dis-ownership of his work once it had been reworked into a musical setting — what is an act of violence upon a poem, the form of which has already been deemed perfect by its originator. This is perhaps witnessed by the occasion when a friend of Housman’s, Dr Percy Withers, thought to play him a gramophone recording of Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge — the only known occurrence of Housman hearing settings of his verses. Dr Withers wrote that it was only after two of the songs had been played that he turned in his chair to behold ‘a face wrought and flushed with torment, a figure tense and bolt upright as though in an extremity of controlling pain or anger, or both.’ If, as it seems, Housman only heard the first two songs, he didn’t get to hear the third, which was the cause of some antagonism between the poet and composer. In December 1920 Housman wrote to his publisher, ‘I am told that composers in some cases have mutilated my poems—that Vaughan Williams cut two verses out of ‘Is my team ploughing?’ I wonder how he would like me to cut two bars out of his music’. When asked about this after Housman’s death Vaughan Williams was unremorseful, stating that ‘the composer has a perfect right artistically to set any portion of a poem he chooses provided he does not actually alter the sense … I also feel that a poet should be grateful to anyone who fails to perpetuate such lines as “The goal stands up, the keeper/Stands up to keep the goal”.’
Housman’s reaction aside, Ravel paid Vaughan Williams the compliment of playing the piano in the first French performance of the work, in February 1912, following which he wrote, ‘Everyone is agreed that your lyric poems were a revelation’.
On Wenlock Edge also came as a revelation to Ivor Gurney. His first hearing of the cycle in November 1919 became one of the most influential moments in his career. He was so fired up by the experience that he immediately set to work on his own cycle of seven Shropshire Lad settings for the same ensemble, Ludlow and Teme, which he completed in December 1919.
Ludlow and Teme received its first performance in March 1920 at the home of Gurney’s close friend, Marion Scott, performed by Steuart Wilson, the Philharmonic Quartet, and apparently with Gurney at the piano. Scott recalled that Ludlow and Teme ‘had a spontaneous success. No composer being forthcoming in spite of repeated calls for him, Gurney was sought, and at length found, bashfully hiding behind the big bookcase at the far end of the back drawing-room.’
The ensemble became an important one for Gurney. In May 1920, with the prospect of a second performance of Ludlow and Teme at the end of the month, and following his second hearing of On Wenlock Edge, his review of which has been quoted previously, he composed a second Housman cycle with piano quintet, this time with a baritone soloist: The Western Playland. Gurney made further settings for baritone and piano quintet in 1925, this time of Robert Louis Stevenson and Walt Whitman, perhaps encouraged by the publication of Ludlow and Teme in October 1923 and the forthcoming publication of The Western Playland in February 1926, both under the auspices of the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust’s scheme for the publication of works by British composers. It could also be argued that the success of these works encouraged Gurney’s exploration of, and belief in chamber music in the latter part of his career, writing numerous string quartets and other chamber works between 1921 and 1927, when he stopped composing.
At the time of his hearing of On Wenlock Edge and the genesis of Ludlow and Teme Gurney had recently returned to the Royal College of Music following the First World War, resuming his studies not with Sir Charles Stanford, as before the war, but with Vaughan Williams himself. The time was one of Gurney’s most intense periods of creativity, producing numerous instrumental works, some two hundred songs, and hundreds of poems. As well as this creativity it also saw a growth of concern amongst Gurney’s friends about his increasingly erratic behaviour leading to, his incarceration in a mental hospital from September 1922 until his death in December 1937.
Towards the beginning of August 1925 Gurney was informed by Marion Scott that Ludlow and Teme was to be broadcast on the BBC National Service, sung by a Mr Osmond Davies. Ten days before the broadcast, on 15 August, Gurney wrote to Osmond Davies, ‘Ivor Gurney writes saying he is so glad that Mr Davies is singing (to wide audience) Ludlow and Teme, and from the praise given his voice by Miss Scott, it should do well. Wishes that it were the revised version … The alterations are simple (and striking). I wish Mr Davies would make them.’ This CD recording is the first performance of Gurney’s revised and corrected version, in a new edition based on three sources left by Gurney dating from 1925: Gurney’s annotated copies of the published full and vocal scores and three manuscript pages of amendments and insertions.
The manuscript notes are headed ‘Ludlow and Teme: Some instantly practicable — and also harder — suggested alternatives. Enormous improvement. Taking away of squareness.’ This ‘taking away of squareness’ is epitomised in the first song, ‘When smoke stood up from Ludlow’, where Gurney occasionally breaks up the regular 4/4 metre. This is particularly effective in the fourth verse where a small cut of just two beats increases the feeling of impulsiveness in the singer’s killing of the singing blackbird. As well as being a musical revision, it could be that, in wanting to ‘take away the squareness’, Gurney is also trying to break free from the formal routine of daily life imposed upon him in the mental hospital — a life very different from the wayward existence of walking, reading and writing he led in his freedom. One might also suggest that, in his exile from the musical world, he was finding the courage to break away from some of the squareness and formality that Stanford had endeavoured to impose upon his pupil.
None of the songs have escaped revision, albeit many of them in small ways. Two revisions are particularly significant: the end of ‘Ludlow Fair’ has an entirely new passage inserted, adding a repeat of ‘the lads that will die in their glory’, heightening the desperate tragedy of the loss of the sons of Shropshire; and in the final song, ‘The Lent Lily’, Gurney repeats the words ‘the spring’s array’ at the climax of the song — a climax originally only partially attained by the use of the string quartet alone.
In the extraordinarily heartfelt slow movement of the cycle, ‘Far in a western brookland’, Gurney has made a couple of amendments to Housman’s text, exchanging the second and fourth verses and altering a line of the third. Unlike Vaughan Williams, these are not pre-meditated changes but the result of Gurney’s habit of setting texts from memory and his occasional mis-remembrances. These are sometimes inadvertently filled in by Gurney without altering the meaning of the line, such as ‘long since forgotten’ instead of Housman’s ‘no more remembered’ in the third verse of ‘Far in a western brookland’. Despite these alterations, this and the final song, ‘The Lent Lily’, epitomise a sensitivity to poetry unique to Gurney and in which Housman could perhaps be pleased to have found a fine interpreter: in his song settings he allows the poems to breathe and be sung and expressed in their own time without feeling restricted by the music — a poet’s sense, born of his dual ability as a composer-poet.
The short life of Philip Heseltine, better known by his pen name of Peter Warlock, was one of notoriety: he was a scholar, editor, critic and biographer, as well as a composer; he lived a ‘riotously bohemian existence’, as portrayed in D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love in which the unflattering character of Halliday is modelled on Heseltine; and he had a reputation for his blunt, cutting criticisms, which were often channelled into limericks. His mysterious death in 1930 added a final patina to the life of one of British music’s more colourful characters.
Commentators have defined two personae in his music: the boisterousness of Peter Warlock and the introspection of Philip Heseltine. Some believe that it was the introspective guise, with its underlying melancholy and despair that produced the finest music; it is this persona that produced what is regarded as Warlock’s masterpiece, The Curlew.
The Curlew, a work uniquely scored for flute, cor anglais and string quartet, sets four poems by William Butler Yeats — one of the most prominent figures in the Irish literary revival at the end of the nineteenth century. Yeats’ earlier poetry became popular with composers and, in order to keep a check on this, he employed a censor to approve the publication of settings — a necessity apparently brought about after he had heard ‘a setting of his Lake Isle of Innisfree — a poem which voices a solitary man’s desire for still greater solitude — sung by a choir of a thousand Boy Scouts’.
Warlock was a great admirer of Yeats, whom he was to meet in Dublin in 1917. However, when he submitted The Curlew to Yeats’ censor prior to seeking publication, the request for permission to publish the songs was turned down. There ensued some heated correspondence which, according to Yeats, resulted in Warlock being forbidden to use his words again. Despite this, Yeats’ hand was forced when The Curlew was awarded publication under the auspices of Carnegie United Kingdom Trust in 1923. The adjudicators’ report to the Trustees noted that the work was ‘A most imaginative setting of Mr Yeats’ poems, of which, indeed, it may be regarded as the musical counterpart.’
Warlock first embarked upon The Curlew in 1915, with the composition of ‘He reproves the curlew’ and the sketching of ‘The lover mourns for the loss of love’, completed in 1917. A setting of ‘The cloths of heaven’ was added in 1916, and by 1920 these had been joined by ‘Wine comes in at the mouth’ and ‘He hears the cry of the sedge’. It was performed in this form before being revised in 1922 with a new song, ‘The withering of the boughs’, replacing ‘The cloths of heaven’ and ‘Wine comes in at the mouth’. Warlock wrote that the work should be considered not merely as a set of songs but as a piece of chamber music, later referring to it as ‘a kind of symphonic poem’. In fact, with its pseudo-continuous form, The Curlew is the largest scale single movement he was to produce.
Warlock drew attention to four significant motifs that recur during the work, three of which first appear in the extended introduction, which sets the desolate scene: the opening line heard on the cor anglais, which is taken up by the singer at his first entry; a motif played by the string quartet alone in which parallel tenths between the first violin and viola are supported by sustained notes in the cello and second violin (this has been called the ‘gloom’ motif by one commentator); the motif heard for the first time at the second entry of the cor anglais. The fourth motif — a falling sequence of minor thirds — is first heard at the end of the flute line in the instrumental section after the second song, although the minor third has already been prominent in the previous motifs. It is also thought that the pointed two note figure heard near the opening in the violins and flute is the cry of the curlew and the repeated notes of the next flute entry that of the peewit.
The sincerity of Warlock’s feeling is perhaps best portrayed in his response to some obviously cynical public remarks: ‘It sounds the depths of desolation and despair, so of course people don’t take it seriously but speak of pose and the “luxuriousness” of Celtic melancholy’. The despair is destined not to find any resolution within the work, except for a brief glimmer of a tragic contentment in the singer’s dream of ’a sleepy country where swans fly round coupled with golden chains’; or is this an image of surrender? The largely unaccompanied nature of the last song echoes the singer’s loneliness as he wanders by the desolate lake, affirmed in the final, hopeless statement: ‘Your breast will not lie by the breast of your beloved in sleep’.
Unlike the cautious approach to composers shown by Housman and Yeats, the poet Cecil Day Lewis positively encouraged the union of poetry and music. In 1943 Day Lewis was instrumental in the founding of the Apollo Society, the aim of which was to ‘revive the neglected art of reading poetry and to show that poetry and music can be regarded as complementary’. In the society’s meetings poetry readings would be preceded, interspersed or followed by musical pieces, with the intention that ‘the poems and the music should comment upon one another somehow — by a similarity of mood it may be, or association of style or subject, or by a violent provocative contrast’.
Foreshadowing his later appointment as Poet Laureate in 1968, Day Lewis had provided the words for the recently appointed Master of the Queen’s Musick, Arthur Bliss, for A Song of Welcome — a work for soprano, baritone, chorus and orchestra written and performed to commemorate the ‘joyous occasion’ of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh’s return from a Commonwealth tour in July 1954. Sean Day Lewis, in a biography of his father, wrote that following this, Bliss ‘recognised in Cecil a poet who loved music and had the technical resources and understanding needed to provide singable words’; for this reason Bliss hoped that they might one day collaborate on an opera.
Just two months after A Song of Welcome Bliss wrote to Day Lewis, ‘Would you be willing to write for me (say) a sonnet that I could set for Tenor (Peter Pears) and string quartet and possibly piano?’ Bliss wanted to write a work for a concert to be given in memory of a gifted Australian pianist who had taken his own life in December 1953, at the age of 31: Noel Mewton-Wood.
Mewton-Wood had settled in London, where he made his professional debut at the Queen’s Hall in 1940 under Thomas Beecham, who declared him to be ‘the best talent that I’ve discovered in the British Empire for years; he’s exceptional and his technique is superb’. Although it was as a pianist that he was winning admiration, with performances of works from Purcell to Hindemith, Mewton-Wood was also studying composition with Frank Bridge, producing chamber music, a piano concerto and an opera, as well as the score for a film: the 1944 ornithological comedy, Tawny Pipit.
In 1948 Mewton-Wood was invited by the British Council to go to Ankara with Arthur Bliss and conductor George Weldon to give the opening concert at the recently built opera house. The programme included Bliss’ Piano Concerto – a work that Mewton-Wood went on to perform in a Promenade concert in 1949 and which he recorded in 1952. In gratitude for his championing of the concerto, Bliss composed a piano sonata for Mewton-Wood in 1952.
When Bliss approached Day Lewis for a sonnet he didn’t have to wait long, for a matter of days later he was able to write to John Amis, who was organising the memorial concert, ‘Day Lewis has just written me a most lovely Elegiac Sonnet in memory of Mewton-Wood, which I shall set for tenor voice, string quartet and piano, and which I hope Peter Pears, Britten and the Zorian Quartet will do me the honour to perform.’ Day Lewis’ words are deeply personal. In August 1952, Day Lewis and his wife, actress Jill Balcon, had given an Apollo Society recital in which Mewton-Wood — a near neighbour of theirs in London – had provided the music. His personal knowledge of his life and his work as a pianist is reflected in the sonnet, including a hint at the reason for his suicide: the sudden death of his lover, Bill Fredricks, from a ruptured appendix; a death that he felt responsible for by not paying enough attention to Fredricks’ apparently frequent claims of ‘a supposed illness of some sort’.
When, a month before the concert, on 4 November 1954, Bliss wrote to his publisher reporting that he had completed the sonnet, he also commented that ‘we cannot expect many performances’, perhaps feeling that its scoring would hinder its prospects. Certainly this beautiful, personal memorial to Mewton-Wood, both in Bliss’ music and Day Lewis’ words, is not as well known or as much performed as it deserves.
Philip Lancaster © 2007