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O mistress mine [1'34]
Come away, death [4'04]
Songs of the Sea Op 91 [17'34]
Joy, shipmate, joy! [1'49]
A Fire of Turf Op 139 [18'22]
Here is the second disc of Stanford songs promised when the first was issued in February (CDA67123). This one contains some of Stanford's best-known songs including The Fairy Lough and the complete 'Songs of the Sea' to words by Sir Henry Newbolt (Drake's Drum, The Old Superb etc). It also includes all seven songs of A Fire of Turf—affectionate vignettes of Irish country life (Blackberry Time and The Chapel on the Hill). As with the first disc, this includes many songs of which we can find no evidence of previous recordings.
A 'must' for all lovers of English song—even though Stanford was Irish.
|Stanford: Songs, Vol. 1|
'Sung with exceptional sensitivity and intelligence…a pleasure to listen to.' (Gramophone)
'No praise can be too high for Stephen Varcoe … his warm, natural baritone, finely judged legato and sensitivity to words are a joy throughout.' ...» More
Stanford’s care for the voice and the vocal line sprang from his own natural lyrical impulse. Through access in his early years to the almost limitless font of melodic material in Thomas Moore’s (mainly eighteenth-century) melodies and the collections of Petrie, Bunting and Joyce, he developed a profound love of traditional melody which remained a vital source of creativity throughout his life. Irish folksong informed much of Stanford’s own melodic parlance, but more than that, it engendered a predisposition towards simplicity, a love of diatonicism and a desire for economy, facets which informed not only the lyrical dimension of Stanford’s art but also his approach to harmony (in which the presence of a strong bass was imperative), texture and accompaniment. On the subject of accompaniment, Stanford was adamant as to its secondary role:
The accompaniment, that is everything which includes the bass, should be in most cases texture and suggestiveness, and not fixed detail of sufficient importance to interfere with the voice. Over-elaboration will kill the main theme, or at best, quarrel with it in a way sufficient to hide its purport. Support is what is needed, and support only. Accompaniment is only a secondary matter, however important it may be … In song-writing, it is imperative to remember that the chief exponent is the singer; that it is he who holds his public, and not his accompanist; therefore an unduly long instrumental passage intervening will tend to break the singer’s contact with his hearers. (Interludes, Records and Reflections)
Clearly, then, Stanford’s attitude to the relationship between singer and pianist was more traditional in outlook. In this regard his methods are more conservative than, for example, Parry’s, where greater consideration is given to a more ‘instrumental’, integrated partnership between the two performers. However, it would be misleading and unjust to place Stanford’s solo songs in too conservative a light. His highly developed lyrical powers are used with great effect and aptness in a wide range of poetical contexts and in an equally broad spectrum of song forms. Subtle artifice abounds within the larger structure and the more detailed strata of organic motive, key scheme and accompanimental imagery. Moreover, Stanford may have eschewed the excessive use of chromaticism, but there is no shortage of harmonic or tonal resourcefulness in his language. Indeed, his handling of diatonic and modal harmony is strikingly inventive, at times highly original, and was almost certainly influential on pupils such as Vaughan Williams, Gurney and Howells.
In general, Stanford exercised a catholic taste in literature. He loved Shakespeare, the Elizabethan and Jacobean lyricists; like his Austro-German forbears and heroes (notably Schubert and Schumann), he delighted in the lyrics of Heine; but he also seems to have been drawn strongly to writers of his own time – Tennyson (a personal friend), R L Stevenson, Keats, Newbolt, Whitman, George Eliot (little known for her poetry), Robert Bridges, and to Alfred Perceval Graves, his Irish compatriot, littérateur and antiquarian. Moreover, as an extension of his affinity with Irish folksong, he felt the need to express a nostalgic vision (albeit a romantic and idealised one) of Ireland through the words of a now largely obscure group of Irish poets (namely Moira O’Neill, James Stevenson and Winifred Letts) who wrote in regional variants of Hiberno-English. This passion spawned a series of cycles and collections which, while mixed in quality, nevertheless inspired him to produce some of his most personal utterances.
Completed in April 1880, Tragödie (or its translation, ‘The Tragedy of Life’) was included in Six Songs, Opus 14, published by Boosey in 1882. Stanford had already exercised his interpretative powers on twelve of Heine’s poems in his Opp. 4 and 7 sets but in these instances the settings were of shorter, more concise lyrics. In Tragödie the structure is a broader triptych, employing elements of narrative more in the manner of a ballad. The first section begins with the words of the lover as he beckons his beloved to flee with him so that they can marry (‘Entflieh mit mir und sei mein Weib’), a passionate utterance which culminates at its conclusion in a bold, four-bar statement from the piano. The expected cadence is, however, deliberately avoided, yielding to a second section using words, as Heine admitted, from a Rhineland folksong. Stanford’s response was, appropriately, to invent his own ‘folk’ material emulating, in a stark F minor, the fantastical Romanticism of Schumann’s Legenden Ton. Commenting on the action of the first section, the text recounts the tale of a youth and a maiden who recklessly stole away in the dead of night – unbeknown to their parents – and were bedevilled by ill fortune, dying in penury. This moral in turn becomes the subject of reflection in the final, more tonally discursive section. Here the two lovers (of the first section), having fled their homes, sit beneath a lime tree over a grave (the grave of the hapless couple of the folksong narrative). Amid the faltering breeze and the sweet yet sorrowful song of the birds, they are overwhelmed by an incomprehensible sadness. Once again Heine’s sense of fate is tinged with a bitter cynicism and irony, and this is highlighted by Stanford’s profoundly poetic reiteration of the piano’s heroic melody, first in the flat submediant (A flat) as an elegiac reference to the doomed lovers (‘Die Winde sie wehen so lind und so schaurig’), and latterly in the postlude where the restatement of C major is muted in tragic solemnity.
The only solo-song settings of Shakespeare that Stanford undertook were completed in October 1896 and published by Boosey the following year. The title of the group refers to Feste, Olivia’s jester, who is inclined as much towards melancholy as he is towards humour and satire, and it is this predisposition of sobriety and pensiveness that informs the composer’s interpretations of all three texts. O mistress mine (Act 2, Scene 3), often portrayed as capricious and whimsical (as in settings by Sullivan and Parry), is here given an alternative reading as a rueful meditation on the passing of youth. This mood is articulated musically in the oblique opening (and the interlude between verses) emphasising the supertonic, G minor, and the wistful nature of the lyrical vocal line. Only in the closing bars, with their conspicuous diminished harmonies, does Stanford give us a fleeting taste of the whimsical.
The themes of unrequited love, a lonely death and subsequent burial (with all its symbols of cypress wood and yew) form the focus of Come away, death (Act 2, Scene 4), whose sense of tragedy is conveyed by the persistence of the dotted cortège rhythm and the supertonic seventh (II7b) which interjects powerfully at cadential points. It was orchestrated in March 1898.
The final song of Shakespeare’s play, The rain it raineth every day (Act 5, Scene 1), is a stoical scherzo, vocally emulating the style of an eighteenth-century popular tune (as one might find in Eccles, Dibdin or Arne). Stanford makes deft use of unexpected modulation across the four verses where the fluctuation of D minor and its relative F major, and the supertonic inflection of G minor, heard in verses one and two, are allowed to influence the tonally fluid verse three (which begins in F, modulates to G minor before concluding on the dominant of D) and verse four (which, after shifting to the major mode, modulates quizzically to its own relative, B minor).
The Pibroch was the first of a set of five songs titled Songs of a Roving Celt (completed in April 1918 and published by Enoch & Sons in 1919), named after the eponymous collection of poems by Murdoch Maclean published in 1916. The song was also published separately in 1924. As the title suggests, Maclean’s text was inspired by the sound of the pipes, its power to invoke the ghosts of history, and the spectacle of marching Highlanders. The modal strains of the pibroch and the trudging march rhythms formed the basis of Stanford’s musical material in his verse structure which is far from straightforward. Indeed, Stanford exercises a sophisticated variation technique from verse to verse which is framed by the opening material (‘The pibroch, man, the pibroch!’) and a tranquil coda.
Stanford’s Four Songs Op 125 were completed in February 1911 and published the same year by Stainer & Bell. They were written for the husband-and-wife partnership of Clara Butt (to whom the first two songs were dedicated) and Robert Kennerley Rumford (the dedicatee of the last two). A setting of Thomas Lodge’s ‘Montanus’ Sonnet’ from Rosalynde: Euphues golden legacie of 1520, Phoebe (the third of the collection) is an attractive lyric whose vocal phrases are shaped and characterised by the poem’s unusual scheme of 3 + 3 + 8 syllables for each line.
It was not long after the enormous success at Leeds in 1886 of Stanford’s patriotic choral ballad The Revenge Op 24 that the composer first met Henry Newbolt in the rooms of Augustus Austen-Leigh, the Vice-Provost of King’s College, Cambridge. Their meeting on that occasion left an indelible impression on the young Newbolt who, in his autobiographical My World as in My Time (1932), described his senior as ‘a gust of Irish humour who blew in among us’. Newbolt also remembered the occasion for Stanford’s volatile moods, of his ‘youthful capacity for sudden angers and genial repentances’, of his ability to fall out with his friends, and of his disarming conciliatory manner for which many forgave him. But most of all Newbolt cherished memories of his partnership with Stanford in the two sets of sea-songs, Songs of the Sea Op 91 and Songs of the Fleet Op 117 written for Leeds in 1904 and 1910 respectively, when he commented:
He was the most subtly appreciative critic and interpreter of poetry that I ever met with. Again and again he would receive my verses by the morning post, and set them before noon to irresistible music. I always felt that to hear those songs, given as Harry Greene could give them, was to be told secrets about myself, to set my own thought reflected with perfect accuracy but irradiated with the magic lights of a dream.
Newbolt’s first collection of poetry, Admirals All and Other Poems, appeared somewhat appropriately on the anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1897 as the eighth of a series of slender chapbooks called the Shilling Garland, edited by Laurence Binyon. The collection was an instantaneous success and launched Newbolt’s career overnight. Four further editions appeared within two weeks of the first publication and, in all, twenty-one editions appeared in print before his next collection, The Island Race (which was effectively an expanded edition of Admirals All), was published in 1898. Across Britain and the Empire the poems were sung, chanted, learned by heart, quoted by ministers in the House of Commons and by bishops in the pulpit. The patriotic content of Admirals All appealed at the time to a broad cross-section of the public, just as Henley’s Lyra Heroica (1891) and Kipling’s Barrack-Room Ballads (1892) had done a few years earlier. Such poems expounded a sense of ‘moral activism’, an impassioned belief in a chivalric code of honour, a sense of history, glory in battle and adventure, heroism, and, as Quiller-Couch remarked, a Roman stoicism and service suffused with Christianity, values promulgated in the British public schools of which Newbolt was a prominent exemplar. While today we may recoil from a goodly number of these sentiments, it would be disingenuous, not to say inaccurate, to claim that they were not held with conviction during the late Victorian and Edwardian periods by people across the political spectrum; and it was into this sensibility that Newbolt tapped with an authentic fervour. But in addition to such patriotic ardour, Newbolt, like Henley and Kipling, was also capable of lyrical, and at times profound emotion expressed in a rich, skilfully ordered language that drew approbation from Hardy, Bridges, Yeats, Sassoon and de la Mare. What is more, his seascapes and nautical images, notably those of his third publication, The Sailing of the Longships (1902), still have the power to impress, and are, arguably, among the finest of their kind in English poetry.
According to Plunket Greene, the Songs of the Sea began with only two settings, ‘Devon, O Devon, in Wind and Rain’ and ‘Outward Bound’, both taken from the recently published The Sailing of the Longships. After Stanford had shown them to Greene (the intended executant and dedicatee), the latter was enthusiastic for more, and so composer and singer wrote to Newbolt for another poem to create a trio of songs. The result was The Old Superb which Newbolt recalled was written ‘all in one piece and next day ... [Stanford] set ... in one morning’. Delighted with the third song Greene begged for yet two further songs, suggesting Drakes’s Drum as an opening number (published in Admirals All) and Homeward Bound, which Newbolt rapidly produced.
The autograph full score does not give the individual completion of these songs (where available) in quite the same order, though it may be that the dates only pertain to their orchestration: Outward Bound and The Old Superb are both undated, while Drake’s Drum was finished on 24 January 1904, Devon, O Devon on 1 February, and Homeward Bound on 29 March. A vocal score (in a version for voice and piano used in this recording) was also completed in March 1904.
Newbolt based his poem Drake’s Drum on a state drum, painted with the arms of Sir Francis Drake, preserved at Buckland Abbey, seat of the Drake family in Devon. In his gallery of nautical heroes, Newbolt expounds the myth of Drake, buried in Nombre Dios Bay. Yet, dreaming all the time of Plymouth, he will return (in true Arthurian manner) at the call of his drum to save England in her direst need. Newbolt’s three stanzas are set strophically as a sturdy march, with a broader, more tonally exploratory final verse in the tonic major. Just as it proved to be Newbolt’s best-known ballad, so it became Stanford’s most popular song and remains so today.
Outward Bound, a melancholy reflection on leaving port and Mother Earth, and a plea to be remembered, is an expansive lyrical effusion in which Stanford shows his true skill in the art of self-developing melody. And in support, the harmonic ingenuity and range does much to intensify the song’s pensive character. This is underlined at the entrance of the voice in bar 3 (‘Dear Earth’) which, with its passing cadence in F minor, solemnly contradicts the opening statement of A flat. Other instances include the yearning suspensions of the supplication, ‘O Mother’, and the fluid progressions of the last, extended phrase (‘Fast dawns the last dawn’) which are so aptly married to the poetic sense of the last two lines of the verse.
The fiery, energetic Devon, O Devon, in Wind and Rain not only commemorates Drake, his defeat of the Spanish and his death off Nombre, but also the valour of Devon men in general and, most notably, the bravery of the three Devonshire companies who drove the Boers off Wagon Hill at a crucial juncture in the British army’s attempt to relieve Ladysmith. The Devonshires’ courageous defence took place in a violent thunderstorm, when rain and hail fell in sheets to impede the combatants’ visibility. This gallant action (powerfully vivid in the minds of the British public of the time) is remembered in Newbolt’s third verse and in the defiant refrain.
Homeward Bound reveals the strong imprint of Brahms, not least in the (presumably unconscious) quotation from the latter’s First Piano Concerto in the preludial bars. This is a truly symphonic song, both in the highly organic development of the thematic material and the interdependence of voice and accompaniment (an interaction that is especially conspicuous in the orchestral version); moreover, with a true Brahmsian preoccupation for integration, the luminous shift to the flattened submediant (A major) sets a bold precedent for the tonal behaviour of the rest of the song which seems continually predisposed to rich and striking changes of harmonic direction. Such moments as the melancholic ‘Faint on the verge’ (which sumptuously reaches F flat major) and the magisterial piano interlude are deeply memorable, but it is perhaps the final line of the poem, ‘There lies the home of all our mortal dream’. where Stanford achieves his greatest emotional profundity.
After its production for Stanford’s song-cycle, The Old Superb appeared at the end of Newbolt’s The Year of Trafalgar, Being an Account of the Battle and of the Events which led up to it, written for the centenary of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1905. Cast in ballad form with a truly popular chorus (‘So Westward Ho! for Trinidad’), the briskly delivered text recounts the poor condition of the ‘Old Superb’ and her crew, four years at sea; yet, after determined sailing day and night across the Atlantic, reached Trafalgar in time to engage the French fleet.
In 1891 Sir Harold Boulton published an anthology with the Leadenhall Press titled Twelve New Songs: By Some of the Best and Best-Known British Composers. Though the collection in itself may not have been ground-breaking in terms of its quality of invention, it nevertheless represented a significant milestone in the development of the English art-song. In the preface to his anthology Boulton was keen to re-echo the commonly received view that England’s indigenous musical prowess for song-writing had languished since the late seventeenth century, but that hopes were high for a rebirth of creativity. To some extent Boulton blamed the low esteem in which song-composition had been held in the past, and some criticism was directed at poets who had ‘not sufficiently laid themselves out for fellowship with the sister art’. Yet, so Boulton believed, the contemporary position had changed so markedly that composers no longer had sufficient poetic material to work with, a predicament which amply justified the production of his texts for all twelve invited composers (Barnby, Cellier, Corder, Cowen, C H Lloyd, Mackenzie, MacCunn, Parry, Somervell, Stanford, Goring Thomas and Charles Wood).
Stanford’s setting, For ever mine, arguably the finest of the whole set, was completed in July 1889. Though Boulton’s words are undistinguished, their preoccupation with delicate simile inspired Stanford to produce a miniature of exceptional tenderness. Fragile strands of melody in the introduction – the falling-sixth intervals of the opening bars – permeate the vocal contours in subtle forms (e.g. ‘to a gossamer’, and its inversion ‘on my wings to bear’) and are given textual definition at the close of verse one (‘So pure, so rare’). This intervallic motive is subsequently central to the next two verses which skilfully incorporate and develop the music of the introduction. Of particular note within this highly imaginative, modified-strophic design is the deftness with which this material is subsumed into the conclusion of verse two (‘to welcome her to her fairy throne’) and further reworked both into the vocal climax (‘of my heart to twine’) and the coda (‘O may she peacefully nestle there, for ever mine.’) of verse three.
Windy Nights is one of a group of nine songs, A Child’s Garland of Songs, taken from Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verse and published by Longmans, Greene & Co in 1892. Composed for (and dedicated to) his two children, Geraldine (b1883) and Guy (b1885), the collection originally consisted of three two-part and six unison items. However, in 1914 they were reissued separately by Curwen at which time Stanford revised Windy Nights and also brought it out as a solo song. Stevenson’s poem depicts the nocturnal actions of an unknown horseman, an image captured in the incessant rhythmical figure of the accompaniment. Moreover, Stanford’s engaging use of crescendo and diminuendo serves to portray the constant hurrying back and forth of the rider, the wild weather, and the anxiety of the observer whose questions remain unanswered.
Stanford completed his Six Songs Op 19 in May 1882. The second song, A Lullaby, took Thomas Dekker’s famous words from Act 4 Scene 2 of his play The Pleasant Comedy of Patient Grissill (1603), ‘Golden slumbers kiss your eyes’. It was first sung at a CUMS Popular Concert on 25 October 1882 by Gerard Cobb (a keen amateur musician, organist and close friend of Stanford at Trinity College) with the composer at the piano. Among the numerous interpretations of this text, by Warlock, Howells and Somervell (who excelled at lullabies), Stanford’s setting has retained perhaps the greatest popularity, owing, one suspects, to the transparent simplicity of its components – the limpid lullaby ‘charm’ that climbs gently through the octave, the artlessness of the vocal line, the unforced hemiolas, and the masterful subdominant inflections (especially at the close).
The third song of the Op 19 set, To the Rose, was taken from Herrick’s Hesperides (1648), a collection of secular, highly polished miniatures on the subjects of love, death and sex. The traditional seventeenth-century conceit of the rose, symbol of nubile womanhood, virginity and eroticism here also reflects the passion of the retiring lover, nervous at his own impetuosity. Almost Mendelssohnian in its delicacy, the song has an elegance tinged with coyness and reserve, an emotional tenor which allows the outburst of the third verse (‘but do not so! Lest a handsome anger fly’) to be thrown into relief.
Composed between May and December 1906, Stanford’s six Songs of Faith were surely the composer’s own equivalent of Brahms’s Vier ernste Gesänge in their preoccupation with the eschatological themes of death, infinity and the hereafter. Stanford sought his texts not from the Bible but from the searching religious poetry of Tennyson and the bold, eloquent, unorthodox prose of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. The grand, moral properties of this poetical material also embodied a strong sense of narrative which induced Stanford to create some of his most fertile and dramatic through-composed musical structures.
The first of the Whitman settings, To the Soul, utilises the text made famous in Vaughan Williams’s ‘Song for Chorus and Orchestra’, Toward the Unknown Region, commissioned by the Leeds Festival (under Stanford’s aegis) in 1907, raising the question as to whether Stanford was prompted by Vaughan Williams’s choice of text or whether it was coincidence. The mood of the song, with its muscular harmonic language and broad architectural strokes, is one of nobility and courage in the face of the unknown region of death and triumphant oblivion beyond.
Joy, shipmate, joy!, famous as the fourth of Delius’s Songs of Farewell, deploys and develops the metaphor of a ship, freeing itself joyously from its long anchorage and leaping swiftly from the shore into the unknown expanse of the great sea. Whitman’s nautical imagery is reflected in Stanford’s wave-like accompanimental contours and the shipmate’s cry, though it is perhaps the ship’s serene disappearance over the horizon together with the singer’s ‘distant’ exultation that sticks in the mind.
In 1913 Stanford used the material of To the Soul and Joy, shipmate, joy! to create a single choral movement titled Song of the Soul, Op 97b. This was offered to Professor Horatio Parker (of Yale University), President of the Litchfield County Choral Union for their 1915 Festival, though in the end Stanford agreed instead to orchestrate To the Soul and the second Whitman song, Tears, for large forces. (They are recorded on ‘English Orchestral Songs’, .)
The Antrim-born poetess, Moira O’Neill (pseudonym of Agnes Nesta Skrine), published her collection Songs of the Glens of Antrim in 1900. Written in somewhat fashionable Hiberno-English, the poems quickly gained a large following – to such an extent, in fact, that O’Neill produced an additional volume in 1921. It must have been shortly after the 1900 publication that Stanford came across the collection, for, with extraordinary alacrity, he composed An Irish Idyll in Six Miniatures, the first of his five Irish cycles and collections. Published by Boosey in 1901 the cycle was dedicated to Harry Plunket Greene, who was its most ardent advocate and executant. Indeed Plunket Greene considered the second song of the cycle, The Fairy Lough, to be Stanford’s finest essay in the art of imagery, a view evidenced by his conspicuous discussion of the song’s pictorial dimension in Interpretation in Song (1912) and Charles Villiers Stanford (1935). With this illustrative potential in mind, Stanford orchestrated the song in 1909 for small forces with appropriate legerdemain, presumably with Plunket Greene in mind, though it is unclear whether a performance in this version was ever given. (It is recorded on). A sylph-like berceuse, The Fairy Lough describes a remote, dark lake, high in the hills, full of ethereal or even ghostly sounds – floating seagulls, curlew calls, flittering moths, lapping water and crepuscular horsemen – all of which are depicted in the uncomplicated strophic design. But surely most memorable is the opening progression of first-inversion chords – tonic to flat mediant (in lieu of the dominant) – which pervades the entire structure, influencing the flat-wise movement of the harmony and the dark cadential formulae.
1893 saw the production of two songs by Stanford to texts by the Cornish author, poet and parodist, A T Quiller-Couch (or ‘Q’ as he was better known). A Carol (‘Fling out your windows wide’) was published by Cassell and appeared in Poems and Ballads by Q in 1896, while a second song, Tom Leminn (dated 20 August 1893), written in a Cornish dialect, remained unpublished. Tom Leminn tells of a young man who during his journeying meets the languishing ghost of Tom Leminn who, though dead, sees his chance to marry the owner of the local inn, Moll Treloare, a widow nine times over (who by implication has exhausted the eligible male population of the locality). Tom Leminn’s suit is, however, of no interest to Moll, who now assumes a character more like Lorelei. ‘To ghosts I cannot condescend’, she declares, and instead marries the young (and somewhat fretful) traveller ‘by strength of will’, leaving the ghost ‘long a-languishing’. Perhaps the true irony is that the song is after all not about Tom Leminn but the voracious appetite of the widow!
Tom Leminn is a comical, entertaining ballad with a sinister, more disturbing edge. A pseudo-folksong, replete with simple tune and refrain, it anticipates (as an important precedent) the musical tenor and satire of Stanford’s opera Shamus O’Brien composed three years later. The song’s transparent simplicity is, however, distorted by unexpected chromaticisms, unpredictable phrase-lengths and sudden changes of tonal direction (note especially the oblique approach to D major in the final verse) which does much to enhance the air of irony. Take, for example, the initial ambiguity of the piano’s opening gesture, suggesting F major before it turns, more ominously, to D minor, a tonal dualism further developed in the third verse (‘The fair widow she sat within’), which sets out in F but cadences ultimately in D minor as before. As for the final verse, Stanford uses the modal change to D major to convey notions of married bliss (note the phraseological augmentation at ‘ordained for human comfort’) and, latterly, a sense of urgency as the hapless young fellow fails to extricate himself, leaving us to ponder the ironic outcome in the final refrain in the minor.
The County Wexford poetess, Winifred Letts, published her first set of poems, Songs from Leinster, in 1913. Stanford evidently read the poems soon after they were in print, for in July of the same year he completed A Sheaf of Songs from Leinster and, a month later, A Fire of Turf, a subsection of Letts’s larger collection. A Fire of Turf consisted of nine poems of which Stanford set seven, leaving out only ‘Voices’ (No 3) and ‘Questions’ (No 6); the remaining poems were set in their existing order with the exception of The Fair (originally No 4) which was placed sixth. Though Letts’s verse is not especially distinguished, the message and world of her poetry clearly struck a chord with Stanford. Nostalgic for a world that was fast disappearing, and for an Ireland remembered vividly from his youth (albeit idyllically), the composer clearly experienced a fascination for the colours, smells and sounds of Letts’s Hiberno-English dialect which, for him, were powerful creative stimulants with a deeply personal (one might even say autobiographical) overlay.
Central to A Fire of Turf are the passing seasons of the year, the changing winds, the supremacy of nature and (in true Hardyesque fashion) its oblivion to man. On a human level this is paralleled in the phases of a man’s life, which, with the rapid passing of time (symbolised in the blowing of the winds), sees our protagonist dream of his past existence through childhood, youth, love and old age, from summer’s energy to winter’s reflection, memories kept alive by the heat and glow of the turf. This lies at the heart of the first song, A Fire of Turf, a broad lyrical exposition, muscular yet tender in sentiment.
The second song, The Chapel on the Hill, is one of Stanford’s gentle modal meditations infused with elements of traditional Irish melody. At first we are filled with the impressions of pastoral childhood innocence, of religious piety and communal security, but all this is quietly unsettled by sexual awakening as, replete with tierce de Picardie, ‘the noonday sunshine [is] caught in Mary Connor’s hair’.
Having established a tonal base of D for the first two songs, Stanford subtly lifts the third song, Cowslip Time, up a semitone to E flat major, a shift underpinning the optimistic, new-found warmth of spring and the symbolism of perennial fertility.
In the relative minor, Scared provides an entertaining foil with its melodrama, ghosts and ‘things that go bump in the night’, though aside from its humorous badinage it obliquely suggests the uncertainties and unexpected turns that life may bring.
As a counterpart to Cowslip Time, the melodically euphonious Blackberry Time captures a day of arduous travelling, of collecting blackberries in the country and selling them in the town. As with so many of Stanford’s strophic songs, an ostensibly simple design is, in detail, highly sophisticated. In this instance the composer suspends the entire structure above a dominant pedal (bringing resolution only in the final bar), thus equating the sense of musical continuity with the central theme of ceaseless and fatiguing travel. There is also a subtle matrix of harmonic variegation, notably in the augmented fourth verse (‘We traipis round from door to door’) and at the climax of the last (‘Och! sure the thought of home’) which, as part of a rich, fertile diatonic idiom, must have been influential on the emerging Ivor Gurney.
In The Fair there is a sense of gaiety and prosperity as our couple arrive in their ‘fine new ass-and-cart’ before the people ‘kilt with envy’. Elements of modality, notably the potent Dorian E minor that obliquely begins the song and colours the penultimate phrase of each verse (‘with pride and joy of heart’), lend a spirit of folksong to the ditty, and there is much in common with Stanford’s well-known folksong arrangement, Trottin’ to the Fair, in the distinctive subdominant close to all four verses, leaving the piano to provide the cadence.
The final song of the cycle, The West Wind, is by far the most discursive and substantial composition. Cast in three sections, it depicts the wild wind from the Atlantic as it hurls itself against the landscape and our protagonist’s plea for rest. This turbulence (a metaphor for life’s eternal struggle) is vividly imparted in the central paragraph which embarks from D minor (the tonal centre of the first two songs). Departure from D, however, is marked with conspicuous rapidity as the tonality shifts chromatically upwards, a tendency absent from the rest of the cycle. Framing this stormy passage are two sections of more lyrical inclination in F major, the first contemplating the peace of a tranquil autumn, and the second a gentle postlude full of reflection and release, as well as a passing valedictory reference to the opening song.
Jeremy Dibble © 2000