The ashtree [2'11]
Tenor James Gilchrist adds to his widely acclaimed series of albums celebrating British song with this programme by Kenneth Leighton and Benjamin Britten. Alongside pianist Anna Tilbrook, Gilchrist excels in a programme that includes the first modern recording of Leighton's Earth, Sweet Earth and Britten's popular and touching song-cycle Winter Words.
Both Benjamin Britten and Kenneth Leighton are inextricably linked with the human voice as a medium for composition. While Britten is, of course, widely known for his enduring and large-scale operas—repeatedly heralded as masterpieces of the genre—Leighton is more often remembered for his considerable corpus of music for the church. However, both these composers also made valuable contributions to the english song medium.
Despite being relatively close contemporaries, there is no specific record of the paths of these two British composers crossing. For much of the time they were resident at almost opposite ends of the British Isles, and moved in rather different circles: Leighton was for most of his career employed by the university’s music faculty at Edinburgh (apart from two years at Oxford from 1968 to 1970), while Britten was a full-time composer, and performer, based in the south of England. There are links and similarities between the two though and throughout his life leighton spoke of the important influence of Britten on his earlier works in particular, having first heard some of his earlier choral works as a chorister in the choir of Wakefield Cathedral. both composers were considerable pianists and regularly performed their own works, as well as those by other composers, as both soloist and accompanist, and in both concerts and broadcasts.
Britten’s contributions to the genre of english song are particularly notable and occupy a vital place in his output. He also wrote an enduring amount of vocal music for the church although, as with Leighton, it was not an overriding element of his catalogue as a whole. Britten inevitably wrote many of his works for voice and piano with himself and the tenor Peter Pears in mind, and between them they were probably the greatest advocates of his songs during their lifetimes. Leighton’s contributions to english song are not nearly as considerable—although important nonetheless—and his works for solo voice and piano that remain in his catalogue are limited to one early cycle and one late work: Five Shakespeare songs composed in 1951 and Earth, sweet earth … (Laudes terrae), Op 94, completed in 1986.
Earth, sweet earth … (Laudes terrae) was begun during 1985 and completed toward the end of Leighton’s life in July 1986, a decade after Britten’s death, and some thirty-five years after his previous work in the genre. Leighton preferred to label song cycles as ‘solo cantatas’ and earth, sweet earth is no exception. It is substantial at approximately forty minutes and there is a strong link between britten and this work, as it was commissioned by the Scottish tenor Neil Mackie in memory of Britten’s lifelong partner Peter Pears. As such it was the second work that leighton had written with this link to Pears; These are thy wonders, Op 84, for tenor and organ, was completed in 1981, and also commissioned by Neil Mackie, this time for the occasion of Pears’s seventieth birthday.
The label of ‘solo cantata’ indicates that Earth, sweet earth was very much conceived as a whole and that musical unity and continuity was also an important element of his compositional processes in a work of this kind. leighton indicates on the score that ‘The work should preferably be performed complete—but i, ii, v & vi may be sung separately. Alternatively iv & v or vi & vii may be performed in pairs’. it was first performed at the 1987 Cheltenham Festival on 6 July, with Neil Mackie accompanied by John Blakely at the piano. Leighton gives us some important insights into the work in a short programme note:
The idea of a song-cycle or solo cantata (as I prefer to call it) was suggested [by Neil Mackie] in March 1985, and this work was completed in July 1986. The proposal was welcomed not only because of a special sympathy which became apparent in […] two earlier works [These are thy wonders and Symphony No 3 'Laudes musicae', Op 90 (1984)], but also because of my renewed personal interest in the piano both as performer and composer.
While Leighton was often inspired by the british metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century, here he makes use of texts by the victorian writers John Ruskin (1819-1900) and Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889). He goes on to state that:
The hills and countryside of scotland in particular have been a source of wonder and inspiration for many years, and a previous large-scale choral work Laudes Montium, composed in 1975 for the centenary of St Andrews University Musical society, is preoccupied with a similar theme and its mystical connotations. A renewed interest in Ruskin also led back to the wonderful nostalgic visions of childhood expressed in his autobiographical Praeterita: and the work of G[erard] M[anley] Hopkins has always presented one of the highest challenges to composers wishing to scale the heights of poetry.
Leighton’s solo cantata provides a stark contrast to Britten’s, although in both cycles their deeply individual musical languages are much in evidence. The piano takes a much more central role in Earth, sweet earth, which is clear from the first song of the set, ‘There was no thought in any of us’, the only movement of the seven to use Ruskin’s words. This extended song opens with an extended piano introduction with most of the lyrical melodic interest contained in the middle of the texture. A soft, yet intense and dramatic opening folds out into an extensive through-composed song, which Leighton expertly ties together with his treatment of motifs and textures. The text is concerned with a retrospective view of youth and reads as one of the more truthful and sincere passages in Ruskin’s work, which is only partly autobiographical.
The remaining six songs are all on a smaller scale compared to the opening, and all contain texts from the poetry and journals of Hopkins. in ‘Inversnaid’ the ‘wildness’ of a highland stream (or ‘burn’) is eulogised; the dramatic description by Hopkins is translated into a lustrous image that Leighton himself would have known all too well. in his note, he goes on to say that ‘in addition to attempting a setting of ‘Inversnaid’, with its obvious Highland connection, I was led also to other great poems which recognise and praise the eternal on the ‘sweet earth’ around us.’ He also states that ‘the piano plays a special and extended role in an attempt to express the meaning of Hopkins’ incredibly rich poetry and prose.’ A common theme in Leighton’s music is that of the seasons, and the bleakness of winter in the next song, ‘Contemplation – In the snow’, is made vivid in the hushed and relatively static and colder writing that places great emphasis on the descriptive prose.
The next two songs ‘The ashtree’ and ‘Binsey poplars (felled 1879)’ both refer to the chopping down of trees. in the first of these songs the maiming clearly causes much distress to the author, which is treated with a striking compassion by leighton, particularly at ‘I wished to die and not to see the inscapes of the world destroyed any more’. In ‘Binsey poplars’ the destruction referred to is more universal, and how easily the ‘sweet especial rural scene’ can be shattered with the result that ‘After-comers cannot guess the beauty been’. The remaining two songs of the cycle—‘Hurrahing in harvest’ and ‘Ribblesdale’—are much more optimistic in tone and in the first of these the poet revels in the luscious and changing landscape brought about in the closing days of summer as it turns into autumn. Leighton closes the set with a generous and effusive tribute from Hopkins in which he includes us all: ‘And what is earth’s eye, tongue or heart else, where / else, but in dear dogged man?’
Winter Words, Op 52 was composed in 1953 between two of Britten’s operas, Gloriana, Op 53 (1953)—commissioned for the coronation celebrations of Queen Elizabeth II—and Turn of the screw, Op 54 (1954). Winter Words also fell between the composition of Canticle II, Abraham and Isaac, Op 51 (1952), and Canticle III, Still falls the rain, Op 55 (1954). Other previous works for voice and piano that provide important precursors to Winter Words include: the Seven sonnets of Michelangelo, Op 22 (1940); The Holy sonnets of John Donne, Op 35 (1945); alongside the momentous Canticle I, My beloved is mine, Op 40 (1947). It is more than fair to say that Britten’s reputation as a leading composer for the voice in his generation was now confirmed, particularly as he had by this time also completed the operas Peter Grimes, Op 33 (1945); The Rape of Lucretia, Op 37 (1946); Albert Herring, Op 39 (1947); and Billy Budd, Op 50 (1951).
Winter Words is a setting of eight ‘lyrics and ballads’ by the victorian author and poet Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) and was first performed by Pears and britten in Harewood House, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, as part of the Leeds Festival on 8 october 1953. The cycle was dedicated to John and Myfanwy Piper, who collaborated with Britten on a number of his operas, as designer and librettist respectively.
While one might expect a cosy and heart-warming experience, it is fair to say that the reality is closer to that of Schubert’s Winterreise (1827), which britten and Pears were performing at around this time. There are several further links between Schubert’s cycle and Winter Words that have been identified, with both works opening in the same key (D minor), the shifting images of a journey, and britten’s various stylistic nods towards individual songs from Winterreise, particularly in the piano accompaniments.
In Winter Words the sparseness of the season is echoed in the sparing, yet descriptive and effective, piano writing that ideally complement and place clear emphasis on Hardy’s texts. In the first song, ‘At day-close in November’, the poet conjures up vivid images of autumn turning into winter, and a clear parallel can be deduced between these visions and the life of the author, who is also entering the twilight of his life; the trees that he planted in his ‘June time’ are now shedding their leaves, as well as having grown sufficiently to ‘now obscure the sky’. This opening strophic song sets the tone for the cycle in being tonally and melodically intricate and chromatic.
The second song, ‘Midnight on the Great Western’ (or ‘The journeying boy’) continues the strong sense of uneasiness created in the opening. In describing a train journey the piano emulates the sights and sounds associated with steam train travel, including the opening portrayal of the train’s whistle and persistent chugging movement. This short tale of a poor boy travelling alone ‘Towards a world unknown’, presumably London, is seen from the point of view of another passenger who wonders about the boy and what will become of him on reaching his destination. ‘Wagtail and baby (A satire)’ follows with a sardonic story, again from an observer’s point of view, of the observations of a baby who perceives for the first time how man is the source of sin, through being the only enemy of the unassuming bird. Here the influence of schubert is particularly present in the left hand of the piano, while the wagtail is evidently heard in the right. The first half of the cycle concludes with ‘The little old table’ in which the narrator is reminded of how the table was the gift of a woman with definite intentions: ‘She look’d at me with a thought / That I did not understand’.
As Humphrey Carpenter has observed of Winter Words, ‘its first half sketches corruption and its second innocence’, and the cycle continues with ‘The choirmaster’s burial’ (or ‘The tenor man’s story’) where the choir member sings of the choirmaster’s departure. Britten cleverly incorporates the hymn tune Mount Ephraim—named as ‘The psalm he liked best’ in the poem—into the texture underneath the operatic dialogue of the tenor line. The textures change with the unfolding events of the story, but particularly poignant are the repeated single note at ‘To get it through faster / They buried the master / Without any tune’ and the image of ‘A band all in white / Like the saints in church-glass’. ‘Proud songsters (Thrushes, finches and nightingales)’ is a virtuosic and energetic setting, and the polar opposite of Gerald Finzi’s setting in his cycle Earth, and Air and Rain. instead of the tempered reflections on youth from an ageing poet evident in Finzi’s cycle, britten portrays the cheerfulness and high spirits of youth itself in a compact and striking manner.
The penultimate song of the cycle ‘At the railway station, Upway’ (or ‘The convict and boy with the violin’) shows Britten at his most creative, with an inventive emulation of the violin in the poem in the single line of the piano part (although requiring two hands for performance). With copious glimmers of operatic writing a drama unfolds in which a poor boy plays the violin to a convict in handcuffs. A humorous eccentricity is found in the jubilation of the detainee as he sings ‘This life so free / Is the thing for me!’ The final song of the cycle ‘Before life and after’ can almost seem crude on first listening with its insistent triads low in the piano. As the song progresses this unusual writing begins to make more sense, referring to a time ‘Before the birth of consciousness / When all went well’. by this point the song begins to feel much more rational and reasoned, concerned as it is—as with many other works of Britten’s—with the corruption of virtue and youthful innocence.
Adam Binks © 2008